Life in a Fishbowl is the kind of film this blog seeks to promote. It has been a major hit in its own territory and won in virtually every category of Iceland’s national film awards. Internationally it has been praised as well – but it has also been dismissed as formulaic and ‘routine’. The Hollywood Reporter review is a case in point. It compares the film unfavourably to two respected Hollywood films and never discusses it as an Icelandic film. This is the kind of thing that really pisses me off. Let me explain.
Life in a ‘fishbowl’ is in some ways an excellent metaphor for what it must be like to live in a nation of 350,000 people which has nevertheless produced international performers in a number of disciplines. It’s perhaps easier to be a big fish in a small pond, but it’s quite difficult to be ‘unknown’. The film has been described as a multi-strand narrative and an ‘ensemble piece’. I’m not sure it is either of these, but I did keep thinking about those Nordic Noir novels and long-form TV serials. The film runs to 130 mins but I could happily have watched it over four or five single one hour episodes. I’ve learned from Icelandic crime novels and a handful of films that there is plenty of darkness in Icelandic stories – but also possibilities of hope.
There are three central characters in Life in a Fishbowl with personal narratives which will eventually overlap. Eik (Hera Hilmar) is an attractive young woman who was a teenage single mother and now has an 8 year-old daughter at 24. She works in a nursery school and supplements her income by working occasional nights as a call girl for local businessmen – trying to reduce her overdraft. Sölvi (Thor Kristjansson) is a handsome young footballer who has had to give up the game because of injury and has been taken on as a banking executive, adding some glamour to the management team. Finally, Móri (Þorsteinn Bachmann) is a poet and novelist who has become a sad alcoholic – but one still capable of producing an important autobiographical novel. These three are indeed familiar characters, but in context they represent much more. While Eik is perhaps the familiar figure of the damaged young woman n Nordic Noir, the other two characters are Icelandic heroes – the artist/novelist and footballer who might be feted in Northern Europe capitals as well as at home, especially in the years immediately before the financial crash of 2008 devastates Iceland. So, we have Iceland on the edge of the precipice with two potential national heroes and stories that delve into a dark past. I won’t give away what happens except to say that all three characters have a link to small daughters. The direct link between the three is that Sölvi has a daughter at the school where Eik works and that he is charged with trying to buy Móri’s house as part of his bank’s redevelopment plans. Móri’s house is near to the school and he likes to watch the young girls playing in the school grounds. That sounds provocative but don’t jump to conclusions. I think this manipulation of what seems like three typical characters in familiar narratives is actually well-worked. The performances are all very good, the ‘Scope cinematography works as does the music. It’s a Nordic melodrama and I had tears in my eyes at the end. If you are a jaded soul who sees everything through Hollywood lenses you might not get too much from the film but for the rest of us, it works like a treat. This second feature by writer-director Baldvin Zophoníasson is one of the films competing for the audience award at Glasgow. It stands a good chance.
This is a riveting 80-something minutes of bravura filmmaking best seen on a big screen in a good-sized cinema (go here to find current bookings across the UK – often single screenings). It’s set in rural Iceland with sea, mountains and rough pasture and accompanied by a terrific soundtrack (including Icelandic choir performances). Described as ‘Comedy-Drama’ by the distributor, the humour is actually very dark. When I was going into the cinema I overheard an argument at the box office when someone couldn’t understand why the cinema would not admit her child (aged under 15). I suspect that the film would be very upsetting for most children – this isn’t a ‘horsey romance’.
There is no strong narrative as such. Instead we get a number of shorter narratives, mostly tragic with elements of comedy, involving the small farmers on the plain. The farmers all in some way live with/by the wild horses of the region, each year rounding up a number of them and breaking them for leisure or commerce of some kind. There is something of a documentary feel to the narrative structure in the way that the stories lead towards the big summer round-up. The community is quite ‘close’ in proximity but individuals are also competitive/jealous/promiscuous etc. The film’s English title (not a direct translation) misses out ‘women’, at least two of whom are also important narrative agents.
I was trying to think of another film that had a similar tone and I began to think of the Basque film Vacas (Cows) made by Julio Medem in 1992. A tight-knit community in a very specific locale with a strong local culture and some almost surreal local practices. At one point, when the various widows/divorcées are angered that one of their number has got her teeth into the most eligible male by teaming up with him during the horse round-up, the other women suggest that there should be more than two people doing the job taken by the couple. “It’s been a two-person job for a thousand years” retorts an older man.
Of Horses and Men is a début film for writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson and as such it is a staggering achievement, winning several international prizes as well as cleaning up at the Icelandic ‘Edda’ awards. One of the roles is played by the Icelandic actor who is best known by international audiences, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, and I recognised at least one other actor from Jar City (2006), the last Icelandic film to get a significant release in the UK. Most of the stories have surprising twists which I don’t want to give away but I was intrigued by the reference to a famous sequence from Jan Troell’s The New Land (Sweden 1972) (what to do when you and your horse/ox etc. are caught in a snowstorm). The relatively few Icelandic films I’ve seen have all had ‘noirish’ features. The short film Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) shares the dark tone and appears to have been shot in a similar location.
I enjoyed the film very much, but I turned away from the screen a couple of times since I’m squeamish about many forms of violence or medical procedure. Will the film please horse-lovers? I don’t know, but I think they will appreciate the representation of the horses (beautifully photographed) and the realism of certain scenes. Be warned, however, that the film ends with the message that all those taking part in the film are horse lovers and that “no horses were harmed during the making of the film”. Some pretty good CGI or VFX then, I think!
Bradford prides itself on its programming of shorts. I’m not really a shorts fan and I do tend to neglect them, though I appreciate the importance of short filmmaking in the ecology of film production generally. BIFF 2014 featured short films in a variety of programming slots. The ‘Shine Short Film Competition’ comprised six films shown as a programme twice and individual entries shown before the main feature elsewhere in the programme. I saw only two of the six, one of which, Cadet (Belgium 2013) won the prize (report to follow). I didn’t see any of the Sydney Underground Shorts which screened before the late night horror films in the ‘Bradford After Dark’ programme. (I couldn’t watch the late-night films as there is no all-night public transport to get me the nine miles home.) I only saw one of the Charles Urban early scientific films – these too had a separate programme.
I did see most of the ‘Cinetrain: Russian Winter’ films that were dotted across the main programme. This funded production programme invited international filmmakers to make films about communities in Northern Russia during the ferocious Russian winter. It’s an interesting project with information available on its website. Bradford showed all seven films which attempted to explore “the most common stereotypes about Russia”. These include excessive drinking, open-air bathing in the depths of winter, traditional Russian crafts etc. I was most intrigued by the village dwellers in one community who complained about the disintegration of local community/collectivist spirit. They viewed the new capitalist Russia with mistrust and felt that today people steal from each other to get by when they used to help each other. That’s a side of the new Russia that doesn’t get as much media attention as it should.
Other than these separate programmes, each of the ‘official features’ was also accompanied by an appropriate short film. I confess that under pressure with several screenings on the same day I sometimes missed the short on purpose to give myself a few extra minutes of breathing space. I’ll just pick out one other short (some are mentioned alongside the feature screenings). The one that impressed me most (i.e. appealed to my interests) was Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) directed by Arnar Gudmundsson. This tells a complete and satisfying story about two brothers – a genuine ‘Nordic noir’ – on their farm (see the still above) in 15 minutes of skilled narrative filmmaking. I wasn’t surprised to learn about its success at festivals worldwide.
Volcano is a recognisable Nordic drama, harrowing in parts and occasionally uplifting – never sentimental, always intelligent. As several trade reviewers jokingly put it, this isn’t a ‘date movie’ – but for older audiences it will ring very true or perhaps start some re-evaluations of family relationships.
At the beginning of the film Hannes is experiencing the pain of his last day at work, aged 67 and after 37 years as a school caretaker and before that as a fisherman living in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. The 1973 volcanic eruption of Eldfell forced him to move the family to the mainland. Retirement does not come easy and it’s clear that for some time Hannes has become estranged from his wife and family. On a topical note, his daughter Telma has just been promoted as a loans manager in a bank – to the disgust of her father. His son Ari is divorced, but usually has his small son in tow. Most long-suffering is Anna, the matriarch of the family. After nearly sinking in his old fishing boat, Hannes begins to soften and he and Anna have a rapprochement – which is almost immediately halted by tragedy when Anna has a very severe stroke.
What follows is a deeply moving study of how Hannes comes to terms with what life has given him. Written and directed by Rúnar Rúnarsson as his first feature after several shorts, the film is a remarkable achievement for a young man in his thirties. Part of a Danish film initiative the film was shown in Cannes in 2011 and has won awards around the world. I wish I’d seen more Icelandic films because the handfull I have seen do have several recurring elements such as choral singing, windswept landscapes and of course, the sea. Although the film is essentially social-realist, there are many symbolic references and at first I assumed that the title refers to the two devastating events that change Hannes’ life so dramatically. At the end of the film he will find himself back in ‘the islands’ as he calls them – perhaps wondering if he should have returned earlier. I’m also wondering if the couple’s favourite ‘halibut soup’ means more than just a tasty dish. Googling it suggests that it is one of the oldest Icelandic dishes – here’s a recipe. In an interview available here, the director says that the ‘volcano’ is actually Hannes himself, a seemingly cold and grey man with his emotions in tumult within about to erupt. Certainly he is a classically masculine working man in his dealings with others. The performances in the film are universally good and especially the lead couple, Theodór Júlíusson and Margrét Helga Jóhannsdóttir.
Volcano is in competition at BIFF and alongside Arrugas it makes a strong case for films which deal with issues for older audiences, although there is no reason why they shouldn’t appeal to younger audiences as well. Can we have a UK distributor for this excellent film please?
Trailer with English subs:
I don’t normally do this, but I watched the film of Jar City just days after finishing reading the book. This was preparation for an introduction to the film as an example of literary adaptation – something I’ve blogged on before.
A little background. Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason has produced a series of crime novels featuring Inspector Erlendur. The books have been extremely popular in Iceland and the first to be translated into English in 2004 carried the Icelandic title Myrin. In the UK it was published as Jar City. Ironically, the filmic adaptation is officially called Myrin – Jar City on the title-card for the BBFC certificate, but the novel has been re-published as Tainted Blood. Go figure, as the Americans say. I think ‘Myrin’ means ‘marsh’ in Icelandic and here it refers to an area in Reykjavik where a building houses a large number of medical specimens in in glass jars. Thus ‘Jar City’.
As an adaptation, the film is interesting in terms of the decisions taken over narrative structure, characters and presentation. I don’t want to spoil either the film or the book, so suffice to say, the film drops a sub-plot of no real narrative importance except to flesh out the story about Erlendur and his daughter Eva Lind and also re-orders events a little. The result in my view makes the film less of a procedural investigation and possibly a more familiar form of filmic narrative. I’m fine with this. I enjoy the slower pace of the procedural, but I recognise that it may not be something for a mainstream audience. It also goes with what I think is quite a clever attempt to make Erlendur a slightly more conventional investigator. (The novels portray a much more dishevelled, older man who forgets to eat properly and rarely has clean clothes – Ingvar (above) is quite striking without the heavy glasses and has a natty line in cardigans and parkas.) However, this ‘softening’ is a matter of degree. The filmmakers have kept Erlendur’s junior partners much as described in the books (the two I’ve read so far). Sigurdur Oli is suitably Americanised and bumptious, while his female colleague Elinborg is happily an ‘ordinary’ and quite sensible woman. I confess that I had no real idea what she would look like, so the joke’s on me if I expected someone more glamorous.
Of course, outside Iceland this won’t be treated as a mainstream film, except perhaps in other ‘Nordic’ countries. Iceland itself has perhaps the highest cinema attendance per head of any country in Europe – perhaps in the world – so perhaps I shouldn’t expect anything other than a ciné literate film from Baltasar Kormakur, the director of 101 Reykjavik, the only other Icelandic film I think I’ve seen. That seemed quite hedonistic by comparison. In style terms, it’s noticeable that Jar City uses a CinemaScope frame, filling it with quite a few long shots of bare landscape and modern housing/offices, sometimes aerial shots and mostly cast in bluish/greenish light. I’ve not been to Iceland, but I could feel the cold and the wet. I could also smell it since this story rather overdoses on the olfactory. The other style feature is the use of music, at times quite obtrusive and sometimes using choral voices. I fear that to those outside Iceland, the music probably simply conveys a sense of Nordic solemnity – I couldn’t find out much about it, not even from the minimal press notes. This was one part of the film I didn’t understand. The opening and closing images feature close-ups of men in uniform singing outdoors as if in a choir on parade. The closing shots reveal that Erlendur is amongst them – so presumably it is a police choir or some form of ceremony at which the police are on parade. I have got some ideas, but I don’t want to spoil the film. If anyone can give me a clue that isn’t a spoiler, I’d be grateful. It’s an interesting element since the other Indridason book I’ve read focuses on a child who is a choral superstar, so it clearly has resonance for the local audience.
Back to the adaptation question. The film is, I think, more conventional in the way it presents the criminal activity that Erlendur investigates. There is little time to consider the serious ethical and sociological/political issues that the story raises. In the book, because Erlendur and the team struggle to get leads, it actually became more gripping. On the other hand, the realism of the film gives a much better sense of what Iceland might actually be like and what being a police officer in a country of only 320,000 must be like. As a vegetarian who lives in a sheep-rearing region, I’m still flashing back to the sight of Erlendur tucking into a boiled sheep’s head that he buys from a drive-thru. There is also a funny anti-vegetarian joke, but at least its at the expense of Sigurdur Oli.
As far as I can see, the collection of samples in Jar City and the associated research is a national issue since Iceland’s small population – sometimes considered the most developed society in the world – is the first to be properly classifiable as a genetic population. This raises quite a few potential questions. The other important theme is the contrast between ‘new’ and ‘old’ Iceland. The director has said that this is what attracted him to the character of Erlendur, who embodies many of the values of ‘old’ Iceland. His daughter represents ‘new’ Iceland – which does seem to have problems.
I’d recommend the film and the book.
(Apologies that I haven’t managed to represent Icelandic names properly – I haven’t managed to sort out my keyboard!)