Danish Film Teddy Bear Lays Bare a Bodybuilder's Heart
There has been some debate, usually centering on the availability of prison weight rooms, that overdeveloped physiques might constitute a serious threat to the rest of us, with stockpiled biceps compared to street-legal weapons and so on. This is a nonissue in Teddy Bear, a Danish character study of a bachelor bodybuilder living outside Copenhagen with his mother. Instead, director Mads Matthiesen emphasizes muscle mass as an agent of isolation, a padding that keeps the world away.
Thirty-eight-year-old competitive bodybuilder Dennis, played by Kim Kold, is introduced on a zero-chemistry date, grasping for straws. One wonders how any man could approach middle age and be so totally hapless with women. The question is immediately resolved when Dennis goes home to his mother, Ingrid (Elsebeth Steentoft), a slightly wraithlike woman with ramrod-straight posture who waits up on her son and grills him on his whereabouts. Through Matthiesen's felicitous selection of telling details, we quickly comprehend that the absolute boundaries of Dennis's life are home and the gym — where we see him smile for the first time, greeting the image of his flexing body in the mirror.
As is necessary in playing such a peculiar human special effect, Kold is himself a competitive bodybuilder, "discovered" by Matthiesen in the 2007 short Dennis, which was developed into this, Matthiesen's first feature. Aside from his towering, enveloping mass, Kold has an eloquently open face. Dennis's downcast eyes broadcast his inchoate desire for companionship so clearly that only his mother could miss it, blind to everything but the dictates of her maternal covetousness, her frame seemingly wasted away by the intensity of her need.
Dennis and Ingrid share the bathroom like an old married couple. He gallantly compliments her dress when they go to a wedding party for her brother, who has married a Thai girl. And when Dennis tells her at the last minute he is going to Düsseldorf for a competition, she freezes him out with studied efficiency of one who knows how to get her way.
As it happens, she doesn't this time, for Dennis is two-timing her, following his uncle's lead to Pattaya, Thailand. So naive as to realize only belatedly that some smiles in the Land of Smiles come with a price tag, Dennis is taken in by Scott (David Winters), the toad-like proprietor of suggestively named bar the Sugar Shack. Here, huge, seemingly virile Dennis is an abject failure as a sex tourist, looking on unstirred and aghast as the Sugar Shack's young bar girls canoodle with dissipated retirement-age Westerners trying to squeeze some last drops of transient pleasure from life. A teetotaler who begins his day with a breakfast of oats, egg whites, creatine supplements, and Diet Coke, Dennis knows everything about using his body as a performance engine but nothing about using it as an organ of pleasure.
Although this is never explicitly resolved, Dennis gets a little closer in courting Toi (Lamaiporn Hougaard), a widow who owns a Pattaya gym. This leads to a farce of the cheater's double life when Dennis returns home and scrambles to satisfy both new girlfriend and mother. The last shot is the film's only panoramic image, and the only cinematographic choice Matthiesen makes, adhering otherwise to contemporary Eurozone realism and Dennis's POV. These self-imposed limitations prevent Teddy Bear from having the breadth of a great work, but they give it the coherence of a good tale, simply told.
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