“Teddy Bear” opens with the brooding, hulking figure of Dennis (Kim Kold) standing in a stark, cold-tinted bathroom and staring at himself in the mirror. He says nothing and his expression is chiseled into what can best be described as a soft-eyed grimace. It’s practically his only expression, and one of many scenes where Dennis contemplates the mirror. This makes sense for a professional bodybuilder, which he is, age 38 and living at home in a Copenhagen suburb with his shrill, petite, obsessive mother. The mirror serves as both a refuge and a torment for Dennis — it’s as if he’s constantly trying to find himself in its thankless reflection.
It turns out Dennis is on what appears to be one of many failed dates with a buxom blonde he met at the gym. He goes home to his mother and lies about where he’s been. His relationship with women is established briskly: He reveres them, but he can’t emotionally access them. This is due, in part, to his overbearing matriarch, whose creepy jealousy and infantalizing of Dennis has apparently, ironically, worn down this muscled behemoth of a man into a simpering coward. When, at a celebration dinner, he sees the unbearable joy his wiry uncle Bent feels towards his new, questionably procured Thai wife, Aoi, Dennis is in awe and consumed with envy. After Bent assures him that Thai women are warmer and more friendly, Dennis naively travels to Pattaya, renown for its salacious nightlife, to find what he hopes to be his bride.
Of course it verges on a gentle-giant stereotype to feature an enormous, physically strong person as awkward, gullible, and easily dominated by others. But the sympathy is earned less through Dennis’s action as much as it is his inaction, his silence, his inability to react. Shots are composed around his bulky frame—seeing him standing over the showerhead in attempts to shampoo his hair, watching him dial a touch-tone telephone whose keys look like candy beneath his thick fingers. These are the images that earn pity. It’s the small things, including his tiny mother, that seem to overpower him.
There must be something about Danish mothers — the infamous director Lars von Trier speaks often about his flawed relationship with his domineering mom — because there’s an implicit approval of these less-than-progressive female ideals throughout the film. Even Toi, the Thai woman who Dennis eventually meets, at times still seems clueless, or mute, or unable to stand up for herself. This may be cultural, and this may be what makes her a good match for helpless Dennis. But it’s these skewed and anti-feminist female portrayals that present the only weakness in what is otherwise a plainly heartful, tender film.