The Seagull's Laughter
2001, NR, 105 min. Directed by Ágúst Guðmundsson. Starring Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir, Ugla Egilsdóttir, Eyvindur Erlendsson, Kristbjörg Kjeld, Heino Ferch.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 23, 2004
"This country swallows you. It's cold and dark and full of evil." And crotchety old sea salts, gossipy spinsters, and groaning, windswept volcanic shorelines. But then, that's Iceland for you, a country whose most famous exports to date are creepy-cute pixie chanteuse Björk and a penchant for ramming otherwise innocent consonants against each other with wild abandon. The Seagull's Laughter picked up all sorts of awards in its native region, but Stateside audiences may find it, like the Icelandic snows, all over the map. Part noirish mystery, coming-of-age tale, and lovingly detailed period piece, the film is gorgeous to look at, full of deeply radiant skies and blue-black icescapes, which have been filmed by Peter Krause, a cinematographer who obviously knows the inherent mystery of such a strange and alien locale but never quite settles on a coherent tone. With its subtle (possibly too subtle) air of menace, it could easily stand in for a mid-period David Lynch film – Twin Ice Peaks – minus the histrionics. The film opens with the return of Freya (Vilhjálmsdóttir), a young woman who had previously moved to America to wed a military officer, who later died of a heart attack. Her grandfather (Erlendsson), a sea captain straight out of Norse mythology, asks "What happened to your American officer then?" Freya's reply: "I killed him." It's meant in jest, possibly, or maybe not. Gudmundsson, adapting from a popular Icelandic novel, tosses about similarly mysterious goings-on which serve to keep the characters and audience off balance. Freya's return (her name is also that of the Norse goddess of love) sets the men in this tiny seaside fishing hamlet abuzz with desire. Compared with the other eligible females in town, who tend to dress sensibly in layers and color schemes that suggest an affinity with the harsh surrounding landscapes, Freya is a crimson-clothed bombshell replete with stunning black tresses, a knock-'em-dead figure, and a love for hot jazz. But why is she back? And did she really kill her husband? Eleven-year-old niece Agga (Egilsdóttir) initially thinks so and frequents the office of the handsome police sergeant to tell him so, but he merely brushes her off by implying she watches too many of those crazy American films. Agga, the lens through which Gudmundsson's film unfolds, adapts to this new intruder and eventually aids Freya in her search for a new husband. The Seagull's Laughter is a dark comedy of manners, dark like the Icelandic night and mordant to the core. The most interesting thing about the film – apart from two smashing performances from Vilhjálmsdottir and Egilsdóttir – is the glimpse it provides into 1950s Iceland. This little coastal town is, like the equally mysterious village in Anthony Shaffer's culty masterpiece The Wicker Man, full of secrets and strangeness. There are no conniving pagan maniacs here (that we can see) and Christopher Lee is utterly absent, but if he were to put in an appearance, it wouldn't be out of place. Funny weird and funny ha-ha go hand in hand in this small Icelandic town, apparently: It's a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.