Fire Beneath the Ice: Films of Iceland
"I thought I could organize freedom/ How Scandinavian of me"
– Björk, "Hunter"
Is there a Scandinavian essence? Americans glean what they can of it in glub-glubs from the pop culture products –the movies and music and furniture monoliths – of the Nordic countries, but if there's a transnational character, it's ill-defined. Iceland's anima may be the most inscrutable. Even that country's most potent and name-checked export, Björk, isn't exactly on the tip of the American tongue; after hearing about the Austin Film Society's new Essential Cinema series, Fire Beneath the Ice: Films of Iceland, a colleague asked me if the movies all starred "Bork."
In fact, the elfin chanteuse makes zero appearances in AFS' swatch of contemporary Icelandic cinema. (She swore off acting after enduring Dancer in the Dark with Lars von Trier, a Dane.) If there's a commonality to be teased out of the five films, it may be in the characters, who all seek to have command of their situations – to organize not freedom exactly, but at least how they order their days. No such luck – not with cheating husbands and pregnant girlfriends, serial killers on the loose, and their own bodies' inevitable deterioration making chaos out of their careful plans.
The series is bracketed by quirky comedies, with the dourer stuff in between. The hipster anomie of Baltasar Kormákur's 101 Reykjavík doesn't feel as fresh as it surely did when it debuted in 2000, but it still has its amusements in the form of 30-year-old loser Hlynur (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), who lives with his mother, lives off his unemployment checks, and masturbates to the morning workout shows on television. Hlynur wants only for his life to stay as uncomplicated and undemanding as humanly possible – a plan that goes off the rails when he falls for Mom's live-in lover, Lola, a flamenco instructor. Lola is played by former Pedro Almodóvar muse Victoria Abril, and it's clever casting; Kormákur's debut splits the difference between early Almodóvar's hot-blooded sexual hysteria and Iceland's glum-faced chill. (Björk extended family alert: The Sugarcubes' Einar Örn Benediktsson co-scored the film with Blur's Damon Albarn.)
Guðnason pops up in series capper The Seagull's Laughter, too, but men exist here only to be manipulated (and occasionally mangled) in this Fifties-set gynecocratic comedy. Freyja was the Norse goddess of love and death, with a hand in war and fertility, too, and flame-haired Freyja (Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir) more than lives up to her namesake. She's a silky seducer of both men and women, netting proposals from the former and blind devotion from the latter. Freyja sends her charges to surprisingly dark places, but The Seagull's Laughter never loses its loose, larky energy.
Alternately, you can almost see the energy sapping from the geriatric leads in Friðrik þór Friðriksson's Children of Nature. The series' earliest film – it was made in 1991 –and certainly its slowest, Children of Nature was the first Icelandic film to be nominated for an Academy Award. (It lost to Italy's sex-romp Mediterraneo.) The elegiac film, which has long stretches of no dialogue, follows two seniors –childhood sweethearts –who reconnect in a nursing home and chafe at the expectation that they should go gently into the night. Hilmar Oddsson's Cold Light (2004) also puts outsiders front and center: This award-winning mystical film stars Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson as an artist plagued by second sight.
A haggard Sigurðsson reappears in 2006's Jar City, a police procedural that may be the series' most conventionally satisfying offering. Based on Arnaldur Indriðason's bestselling Detective Erlendur series and cut from the same cloth as other grim Scandinavian crime fare from Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, Jar City's dual narrative tracks a grieving father's obsession with the hereditary disease that felled his toddler daughter and a shoulda-been-open-and-shut murder investigation that sends Detective Erlendur (Sigurðsson) down the blind alley of a decades-old cold case. It isn't all doom and gloom, though; director Kormákur injects hits of the same black humor that distinguished his 101 Reykjavik. The films aren't so far apart, really. It's the same design: a man, a plan, and it all gone amok.
AFS Essential Cinema's Iceland series screens Tuesdays at 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South (1120 S. Lamar). Films are free for AFS members; $8, general public.
Nov. 23: 101 Reykjavík
Nov. 30: Jar City (Myrin)
Dec. 7: Children of Nature (Börn náttúrunnar)
Dec. 14: Cold Light (Kaldaljós)
Dec. 21: The Seagull's Laughter (Mávahlátur)