What kind of guests are so pathologically accommodating that their hosts can get away with murdering them?
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What’s in a name? On one hand, Speak No Evil seems a fitting choice for the English-language title of Christian Tafdrup’s latest feature. The film’s central enigma rests on a non-speaking boy called Abel (Marius Damslev) whom a Danish family – made up of Louise (Sidsel Siem Koch), Bjørn (Morten Burian), and their daughter, Agnes (Liva Forsberg) – first meet whilst on holiday in Italy. Karin (Karina Smulders) and Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) – a Dutch couple who introduce themselves as the boy’s parents – attempt to explain his silence, insisting, “Abel has difficulties speaking – if he feels some sort of pressure, he can get a little insecure.” But this turns out to be a lie: when Bjørn and Louise take Agnes to visit Abel in Holland, he reveals that his tongue is not simply “tied” but missing altogether. Accordingly, Patrick revises the initial explanation, claiming instead that “Abel has ‘congential aglossia’ – meaning basically he’s born without a tongue, or with a much smaller tongue than you or me.” But this, too, turns out to be a lie: Bjørn eventually discovers that Abel is only the latest in a series of children whom Patrick and Karin have kidnapped and shorn of their tongues – whom they’ve forced to Speak No Evil, as it were. In case we’re in any doubt, Karin and Patrick– with help from an accomplice, Muhajid (Hicjem Yacoubi) – eventually kidnap Agnes and shear her of her own tongue (with secateurs, no less), before forcing Louise and Bjørn to strip and then stoning them both to death.
What’s more, the title Speak No Evil gets at why this tragedy unfolds. From the very outset of the feature, Bjørn and Louise are characterised by their constant failure to protest against – or even to mention – their hosts’ transgressions. When, in the film’s opening sequence, Patrick asks Bjørn to move his towel off a deck chair, Bjørn meekly complies (though many other chairs are available). Likewise, when Patrick and Karin insist on feeding roast boar to Louise (knowing full well that she is a vegetarian), Louise is too polite to refuse. And when Louise discovers that Patrick has put Agnes in his bed and slept naked beside her, she simply carries Agnes away. True, the Danes eventually try to voice their concerns in a meeting the Dutch, but the attempt is beset with failure. Too much time has passed since too many of the offences, and too many offences aren’t brought up at all. Of those that are, the really important one – Patrick’s sleeping naked next to Agnes – is new to Bjørn: Louise, in other words, hasn’t told him about the incident prior to the meeting. Plus, the Danes apologise incessantly, as if they’re the guilty party. The title Speak No Evil, then, pinpoints not only what the Danes do (or, better, what they do wrong), but also why they do it: they Speak No Evil – i.e., they mention none (or, at least, too few) of the insults done to them – so as to Speak No Evil – i.e., in order to commit no verbal offence against their hosts. A wealth of “tongues” are available to Louise and Bjørn – they experiment with Italian, appear to understand some Dutch, and oscillate fluidly between Danish and English; nevertheless, their tongues, are “shorn” – only, by social custom, rather than by secateurs.
On the other hand, Speak No Evil also obscures the brilliance of the film’s Danish title: Gæsterne – the most direct translation of which is probably “visitors” or “guests.” In this sense, “gæsterne” seems fitting as well. At its most basic level, the film is about some guests – Louise and Bjørn (and, to some extent, Agnes as well). There’s an important difference, though, between receiving guests for dinner and having friends around for a feed. The first occasion lacks the informality of the second and is marked instead by the diners’ unfamiliarity toward one another. And for this reason, “gæsterne” can also be translated as “strangers.” In this sense, the title refers not just to the Danes but to the Dutch as well. While it’s understood that Louise and Bjørn are strangers to Karin and Patrick, it’s made explicit that the reverse is true as well– that Karin and Patrick are themselves strangers to Louise and Bjørn. On receiving the invitation to spend “a weekend in the Dutch countryside,” Louise points out, “It’s a bit of a long time to be with someone you don’t really know.” “gæsterne,” then, not only marks the Danes as its titular subjects (they are the film’s “guests” or “visitors”), it also groups them in with the Dutch (both families are “strangers” who “don’t really know” each other). “Gæsterne,” in other words, doesn’t simply distinguish guests from hosts, it also muddies that very distinction.
Perhaps it will be interesting to note here that the word “gæsterne” is related to the English word “host.” Both are descendants of an older term, “gʰóstis” – which can mean not just “visitor,” “guest,” and “stranger,” but “host” as well. If this seems odd – if it seems absurd that a word should be its own antonym – then two things should be kept in mind. First, that English itself is riddled with these so-called Janus terms (“to bone” a chicken, for example, is to remove the bones, while “to bone” a corset is to add the bones; to be “fast” is either to be moving quickly or to be tied down – so, not moving at all). Second, that there is an analogous concept in Ancient Greek. “Xenoi” can mean “strangers” (hence, “xenomorph” for the “strange shape” in Ridley Scott’s Alien), or foreigners (hence, “xenophobia” for “fear of foreigners”), but it, too, can mean “guest.” “Xenia” – the friendship shared with guests – is often translated into English as “hospitality,” but this is misleading: “xenia” doesn’t just refer to the friendship extended to guests (a one-way friendship is no friendship), but to the reciprocal relationship in which guests and hosts are equal participants. Book I of Homer’s Odyssey offers an exemplary instance. Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, greets the goddess Athena (who is disguised as Nestor, King of Pylos) with these words:
stranger, and welcome. Be our guest, come share
our dinner, and then tell us what you need.”
(I. 122-124. Trans. Emily Wilson)
The important word here is “then”: not until the two strangers have eaten together is the one permitted to inquire into the other’s identity and purpose. It’s crucial, in other words, that the two stay strangers – that guest and host remain undifferentiated – for the duration of the meal.
In Danish, “gæst” doesn’t mean “host” (“vært” does). Even so, the ambiguity of “gʰóstis” – the fact that it can mean both “guest” and “host” – continues, I think, to haunt its descendant. Audible through the title “Gæsterne” is the faint suggestion that the film’s “hosts” might be its real subject. But who are the “hosts” in “Gæsterne”? The obvious answer is that the Dutch are: it’s they who literally receive the Danes within their home. On closer inspection, though, a couple of problems arise. First, the Dutch are totally inept in this role. As Patrick puts it during the impromptu meeting: “It truly breaks my heart to hear that you haven’t enjoyed your stay. It makes me wonder if maybe I’ve failed as a host.” Of course, there’s some irony to this statement: by sleeping naked next to Agnes, Patrick has unambiguously failed as a host; the very fact that he can only “wonder … maybe” is only further proof of his total inability (or, perhaps, his refusal) to consider the Danes’ feelings – that is, of his utter incompetence as a host. Second, the Danes absolutely shine in this role. They fail to protest because they are too considerate of the Dutch’s feelings – too accommodating. The tragedy doesn’t just unfold because Louise and Bjørn Speak No Evil; specifically, it unfolds because the guests are too much like hosts – because the line between the two, accommodator and accommodated, “gʰóstis” and “gʰóstis,” has been muddy from the outset.
There’s another sense, though, in which Karin and Patrick do succeed as “hosts.” Some “strangers” are not friendly at all, for which reason “gʰóstis” can also mean “enemy” (as in the English word “hostile”). When Karin and Patrick cut out Agnes’s tongue, or when they stone Louise and Bjørn to death, they are, in a manner of speaking, fulfilling this ancient sense of “hosting.” But who or what exactly are they hosting? What kind of guests are so pathologically accommodating that their hosts can get away with murdering them?
It could probably be argued that Bjørn and Louise “don’t really know” each other (certainly, they fail to share crucial pieces of information between themselves), but the point that “Gæsterne” labours, I think, is that Bjørn, particularly, is a “stranger” or “gæste” to himself. He and Patrick are out for a drive together, when the following dialogue unfolds:
Patrick: You know, sometimes I have this, this thing right here. And it’s so powerful and wild. And I like it. That’s the weird part. I really like it. You understand?
Patrick: You do?
Bjørn: Totally. Normally I just try to hold it down, or I keep it in chains.
Bjørn: I don’t know why. Too many rules, I guess. It’s …
Patrick: It’s what?
Bjørn: I don’t know, it’s claustrophobic, you know? It’s like I’ve become this person that I don’t wanna be.
Patrick: And who is that person?
Bjørn: I don’t know, it’s just some guy. Some normal guy who gets up in the morning and takes his daughter to school, and goes to work. Play a little squash once a week. Have dinner with people that I don’t even like. And I’m so tired of smiling all the time.
It isn’t just Bjørn’s tongue, then, but his whole identity that is “shorn” by social custom. English has a nice (if overused) expression to describe this experience: being a “ghost” of one’s former self. And it probably goes without saying that this word (denoting the strangest visitor of all – the one whom we can never “really know”) is also a descendant of “Gʰóstis.” There’s a sense, then, in which Karin and Patrick don’t just succeed in “hosting”; particularly, they succeed in killing off a “ghost” – or, rather, in turning a figurative “ghost” into an actual ghost. If the tragedy of “Gæsterne” unfolds because the line between guest and host, “Gʰóstis” and “Gʰóstis,” is muddy, then it ultimately “depends” as David Foster Wallace once wrote of Kafka’s comedy, “on some kind of literalization of truths we tend to treat as metaphorical.”
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All images are screenshots from the film.