The Happiest Man in the World by Teona Strugar Mitevska is a dark dance of the present and the past, full of dark humor and unimaginable tragedy. The director tells a story about love and forgiveness with him, while at the same time showing guilt as something multifaceted.
Macedonian director who already attracted wider attention with the film God exists, her name is Petrunia, also focuses on a very specific, but therefore particularly complex topic in his latest film; if in Petrunia dealt with the position of feminism in a deeply patriarchal society, but here is a theme that keeps getting stuck in viewers’ guts because of its indigestibility – perhaps because the experience is still so recent, or because the horrors from which it emerges simply make it indigestible. The question of guilt and justice remains in the air, but Mitevska’s film does not outline the film in black and white, nor does it give clear answers, but rather shows the complexity of reality and the human position in it through the diversity of characters, their experiences, views, emotions and backgrounds.
Love after war can only be explosiveThe film is about Asya (Jelena Kordić Kuret), a woman in her early forties who, on the initiative of her mother, goes to A touch of happiness, a kind of speed dating that the online platform hosts in an 1980s-style Sarajevo hotel, a remnant of Yugoslav brutalism. Her partner is Zoran (Adnan Omerovic), with whom she arranged to meet in advance, but she doesn’t know much about him until the moment of the date. The meeting in the hotel is organized in the manner of predetermined questions, followed by the answers of the participants, with which the latter as much as possible effectively – yes, even love was subjugated by neoliberalism at some point – they learn or they find out if they get along well. Upon arrival, each of them is given a name badge and a shapeless pink shirt, which should make the participants as anonymous and neutral as possible in the eyes of potential partners. While an unknown male voice from the loudspeaker asks about favorite colors, memories, sexuality and values, the participants descend into a seemingly formal and controlled, but at the same time extremely chaotic and intimate (re)experience.
Although Asja was encouraged to participate by her mother, it seems that, despite her discomfort, there is still some curiosity in her. The little hope he has, however, when he meets the anything but fun Zoran (You have no sense of humorshe tells him early on) rapidly declines with each question asked. Jelena Kordić Kuret he shows this with masterful precision, because the joy of it flows like drops of gasoline from a lightly filled container, until an unexpected spark appears from somewhere – and with it an explosion, the destructive power of which strikes even beyond the movie screen. Zoran leaves hints to Asji about his past little by little, but she is too patient for him – he needs a confrontation, he needs reconciliation in order to move forward – and she presses like a time bomb shaking until he explodes himself.
How deep the absurd cutsAs the tension between the main characters escalates, the tasks for the dating participants also become increasingly bizarre, creating a kind of crescendo, an explosion, and then a gradual diminuendo ending in catharsis.
The day-long event quickly turns from a relaxed and slightly comic feel into a dark absurdity of the grotesque. From the almost slapstick nature of the strange game of questions and answers, we suddenly find ourselves in the middle, in a grotesque burka of a situation where Asja and Zoran, like two cats ready to fight, stare face to face, not knowing how to act in an environment where negativity there is no space; a place where the first impression means everything.
The escalating contrast between them and their surroundings reaches its first peak, when Zoran storms out of the room after Asa’s apparently banal answer to the question of what her worst memory is. It turns out that he is the one who shot her more than twenty years ago during the war, leaving her in a coma, and instead of a potential lover, Asja finds herself facing a would-be murderer.
The other participants, including the leaders, actively ignore the tension, until the inner distress and the absurdity of the situation around her find themselves in the common embrace of the Viennese waltz. And so Zoran and Asja have no choice but to join, dance away their traumas, and try to start a new life.
A theater more real than life In a few hours, thirty years of history are overturned between Asja and Zoran, but the film never evaluates the latter, but rather focuses on the ways of dealing with her in all her complexity. It observes the impact that trauma has on a person, how we deal with it, and at the same time questions the desire for punishment in relation to forgiveness, which, according to the screenwriter, is Elma Tataragićwho actually experienced the story, “the only way to establish any future.”
The film, which in many ways flirts with theatrical aesthetics and performance, is a kind of experiment in what happens when you put 40 people, the vast majority of whom have survived the war themselves, in one room. Is it the “elephant in the room”?“ can it be avoided at all?
Mitevska likes to test the boundaries of the known and proven, and in such experiments she sees above all the potential for the unexpected, and thus new possibilities. “We must constantly avoid the comfort zone and question established ideas and systems,” she said in an interview for Mladina.
Traumas often paralyze a person, so it is necessary to find a way to deal with them and eventually leave them behind. Mitevska does this with the help of dark humor and the grotesque, which leads the audience into a difficult situation in a lighter way: “If we told the true story, with all the details, no one would believe it was possible,” said the director.
What is happiness if we have no one to share it with?The film so deftly exploits the absurd nature of the dating world – whether it’s virtual apps or live speed dating, both work in a rather detached, unintuitive way. The atmosphere with constant questions and time-limited answers quickly becomes claustrophobic, but most of the people present accept it as a game, which in a way it is. Some are even there to fill their otherwise lonely weekends. Solitude can be overcome – right at the beginning of the meeting, an unanswered question echoes around the room, a kind of event slogan: What is happiness if we have no one to share it with? It turns out that even the fear of loneliness can be sold.
Philosopher Alain Badiou has fearlessly dissected the modern type of romance embodied by dating apps, where love is guaranteed and risk-free, protecting one from unwanted pain and disappointment. This kind of love does not consider vulnerability as one of its components, but instead wants to act as a kind of magic potion, a one-way ticket to a world of happiness, excitement and pleasure. She is very similar to what she is Kierkegaard described as the “lowest type of love”, as it excludes the factor of chance and provides us with what we ourselves lack. It is useful, efficient, practical and, above all, safe. But are these really terms you would want to associate with something as intimate as love? Isn’t it just a coincidence or surprise that catalyst of excitement, intimacy and opportunities for new experiences and personal growth?
In The Happiest Man in the World, this is especially pronounced, although it does not strive for a romantic outcome. The strange invention of capitalism is so interestingly complemented by a socialist hotel, full of traumas, for which there is really no room anymore. And yet I wonder, in the age of Tinder, would people of such diverse ages and expectations (one of the younger participants mentioned an orgy) really attend such an event?
Weight with a capital TThe hotel is supposed to represent neutrality with its room names and brutalist architecture, as is the purpose of the shirts worn by the participants. But as is known, neutrality is never neutral (Switzerland is traditionally a true master in this duplicity) and the role of hotel-Switzerland is also to become a world of entertainment, where ideals are forcibly created, but no one really falls for them – and yet it is easier to play than to face.
It is interesting to observe how, despite the omnipresence of sadness, anger and distress, the participants cannot bear the real weight that manifests through Asja – her thorn-like sincerity paralyzes many to the point that they prefer to turn away. There is a mountain of trauma simmering beneath the surface of many, just waiting to erupt – and when it does, they split like flies.
Happy happyIt is much easier to be at least seemingly happy than to face hardships. We live in a time of toxic positivity, where everyone would like to find the shortest path to carefree, and capitalism successfully washes its hands of it. Even if the problems are systemic, if financial hardship and lack of time and the consequences that a fatal combination brings are the modus operandi, you are still responsible for your own happiness – so just be happy. And so, in some hotel in the middle of the city, full of shot facades, people fill their holes with a plaster of apparent indifference, to hide them, to live again, to get the happiness that was taken from them, even if they have to pay for it.
A powerful visual narrativeIn a sometimes more, sometimes less explicit way, the film shows the tragic historical context, which permeates even such minor situations as the choice of meal at lunch. The camera also plays a big role in this, and with shots such as Asja crossing the construction site, Zoran’s hands entwined around her neck, and the sea of white crosses that can be seen from the hotel terrace, skillfully places the story in a wider context.
Through the landscape and the dialogues of the participants, we witness an attempt to restore the environment, which has damaged many to the point of no return. The camera, which throughout the film often takes on the role of narrator when words fail, is often also a source of humor. It shows the emotions that are not expressed, the gravity that hides behind the seemingly playful situation – and yet, with mischievous gestures, such as the shot stop at the aquarium, when Asjo is asked on arrival at the hotel if she would like to eat fish or meat, it is also fun again and again .
Attention, there are spoilers coming!
Catharsis as cliché or necessity(Un)salvation also takes the form of catharsis in this film, which, despite its necessity, can hardly escape the aftertaste of cliché. The dance scene seen so many times with young people who appear in the hotel out of nowhere (I immediately remember Burned or after the sun) despite its symbolism, it is a bit kitschy. Asia’s reconciliation, as well as Petrunia’s v God exists, his name is Petrunia, given the timeline of the story, which in both cases should unfold in one day, in the context of the deep anchoring of trauma as a social problem, it is almost too fast and too superficial, and the real story thus leans even more towards the concept of theater. But this is not necessarily a bad thing – the essence is still there and the film does not leave us without thoughts – let the length of this text be my witness.