Where the phrase “Teddy Bear” implies a certain squashy cuddliness, the film’s subject is anything but. At least on the outside. But, then again, bears aren’t that cuddly in real life either. Danish director Mads Matthiesen developed this feature from his acclaimed 2007 short, “Dennis,” which began his exploration of the emotional resonance of an ultra-masculine figure in an incredibly emasculating situation. In the full-length version of the story, the man’s humiliation and powerlessness evolve into the quiet self-confidence of a person who has found acceptance. Upon peeling back this teddy bear’s layers of fur, we begin to see the soft cotton that gives him his true shape.
Dennis Peterson (real life bodybuilder Kim Kold) is a 38-year-old, colossal hulk of a man, mounds of hard muscle encompassing every inch of his flesh, bands of tight sinew wrapping themselves across his limbs. He dwarfs everyone around him (even among the characteristically tall Danes), and furniture looks ill-sized for his massive frame. His demeanor, however, betrays a man plagued by shyness and insecurity. Dennis moves with surprising grace and silence, each movement deliberate. This delicacy is mirrored in his tone: behind the stony visage is a soft voice, amost down to a whisper, as though its full volume might be as powerful as his physical strength.
Dennis lives with his mother, Ingrid (Elsebeth Steentoft), an overbearing harpy of a woman who gives Betty Draper a run for her money. She controls her son with jabs of passive aggressiveness and parental guilt, refusing to eat or even come out of her room when he does something to displease her. And thirty-eight years of existing in this environment has invaded Dennis, rendering him with enough self-doubt and anxiety to leave a grown man unequipped to face a life without his mother. A horrific date, interrupted by Dennis’ near panic attack in the bathroom, capped off by total silence over the meal, illustrates just how deep his maternal attachment runs. The gym, where Dennis is at his most comfortable, flexing with pride and satisfaction in front of the mirrors, appears to be the only place Ingrid’s authority can’t penetrate. The bodybuilder is a loving and gentle soul, but his discomfiting outward appearance keeps him from baring it to anyone.
After attending the wedding party for his Uncle Bent (Allan Mogenson), who has returned to Denmark with his Thai wife, Aoi (Sukianya Suwan), Dennis decides he’ll have better luck in love abroad. He tells Ingrid he’s going to a competition in Germany, and books a ticket to Pattaya, Thailand, where Bent tells him to hook up with Scott (David Winters), an American bar owner who can arrange “introductions.” If he stood out somewhat in Copenhagen, Dennis is a monster in Pattaya, towering over the tiny Thai prostitutes that flock to him in the street, not so unlike the Pied Piper. It’s not particularly surprising that this soft-spoken giant of a man is overwhelmed, and consequently turned off, by the very forward girls Scott introduces him to. But when he seeks solace by working out at a local gym, he meets a kindred spirit who recognizes him as one of the world’s premier bodybuilders. Dennis accepts the man’s invitation to dinner, where he develops an instant rapport with Toi (Lamaiporn Hougaard), the widow of the gym’s owner, and an equally serene companion.
Though the budding relationship between this odd couple is sweet and heartening, “Teddy Bear” is not really about their romance. It isn’t really a romance at all, but a coming-of-age (at a very late date) story, an account of the changing interactions between Dennis and Ingrid. It’s their relationship that takes center stage in the first and third acts, in a structuring device where Toi nearly becomes the other woman. This focus creates a heartrending, and sometimes disheartening, film. The mother-son relationship is full of devastating moments, and the consequences of the mother’s suffocating neediness — the effects it has on her son — are especially painful to watch. In more than one shot, we see Dennis standing alone, framed in silhouette, as he views the bustling world around him.
Yet, for a film that’s so desperately sad for so much of its duration, the running sight gag of Dennis’ immense form looming over his surroundings seems out of place. In spite of successful photography almost everywhere else, cinematographer Laust Trier-Mørk takes the concept of Dennis’ emotional and physical alienation to the point of exaggeration, with an unnecessary number of shots that showcase his size. The technique is initially quite convincing, and rather funny, as we see the bodybuilder’s feet hanging off his bed, his enormous frame crammed into a tiny European car, a Thai showerhead placed too low for his height. But, as you can probably tell from these descriptions, the conceit begins to wear as the joke goes on and on and on.
But this doesn’t stop us from rooting for Dennis. Indeed, there’s probably nothing that could. Matthieson and co-screenwriter Martin Pieter Zandvliet (who also co-wrote “Dennis”) have developed earnest, realistic characters that, though they may be unusual or flawed, garner our sympathy and affection. A wonderful cast heightens this sympathy, particularly Kold, a non-actor who captures a stoic man’s subtle mood changes perfectly with only a few slight facial movements. Indeed, his success in conveying Dennis’ hidden rage and sadness make the scenes when we finally see a true smile on his face wonderfully poignant.
“Teddy Bear,” like Dennis, is understated and of few words. But, again like Dennis, this makes it all the more powerful when we realize what it’s trying to say. [A-]