Published January 7, 2017
In 1989, Jim Jarmusch was unable to attend the Reykjavík Film Festival screenings of ‘Mystery Train’. In his stead, he sent producer Jim Stark, who ended up hitting it off with Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, at once the leading luminary and the enfant terrible of Iceland’s burgeoning film scene: the festival’s precocious founder, in the years leading up to the creation of the Icelandic Film Fund, and the director of the controversial punk documentary ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’ (see issue 9, 2016). By then, Friðrik Þór’s early work had gained him an appreciative audience on the international festival circuit. Stark liked Friðrik Þór’s fiction debut ‘White Whales’, which told the violence-tinged story of two fisherman ashore in Reykjavík in a style compared to Jarmusch’s hipster-Ozu deadpan. In 1991, his ‘Children of Nature’ would be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (a feat still unrivaled in Icelandic cinema). Friðrik Þór’s film riffed on Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Story’ and Wim Wenders’s ‘Wings of Desire’ to tell a story of Iceland’s urbanization, with a whiff of road-movie mysticism he would eventually refine further in 1995’s ‘Cold Fever’, cowritten by Stark.
As Friðrik Þór relates in interviews, he and Stark had got to talking about doing something with the actor Masatoshi Nagase, who plays one of the Japanese tourists adrift in Memphis in ‘Mystery Train’. Inspired by a stray news item, they finally came up with a story in in which Nagase’s character reluctantly travels to North Iceland to perform a memorial ritual for his drowned parents. In the dead of winter.
Twenty-plus years on, ‘Cold Fever’, the dialogue of which is mostly in global English, reads as a wonderfully knowing tourist’s-eye-view of Unique Iceland. Many of the jokes are evergreen: The Blue Lagoon of 1995 is quaint, small and foggy, but the sign commanding international visitors to shower, with red patches over head, feet, armpit and genitals, is unchanged. The snow-blown roads are all but empty of visitors, though, except for a few disreputable American hitchhikers Nagase picks up (Fisher Stevens and Lili Taylor, wonderfully mixing neurosis and aggression). It’s practically a Wild West—or a great beyond. Of course he gets spectacularly lost (like many of today’s guests, he ignores road-closure signs), and has encounters from the cosy to the cosmic: from the quirky bar where he’s introduced to Brennevin and sheep’s testicles, to the shores of a glacial lagoon, where a wild-haired girl restarts his junky Citroën with her elf-like shriek.
Now, even perfectly unmystical contemporary Icelandic films, like ‘Bakk’ and ‘Á annan veg’, use the Icelandic highway as a metaphor. (The Ring Road leads out into wide open spaces… right back to where you started.) And the more spiritual odyssey of ‘Cold Fever’ can hardly be accused of peddling an inauthentic export-only view of the country. Friðrik Þór’s eye for the landscape’s frosty negative space gives the objective natural beauty a personal, mysterious twist (further emphasized by the wintry, chiming score of ‘Rokk í Reykjavík’ punk turned Ásatrú pagan Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson). And the style, quizzical observational comedy and slow-motion slapstick, is international. The performers, foreign and domestic, are given space to project personality in unpredictable directions—including the great Japanese director Seijun Suzuki, twinkling in a rare acting role. Whether you’ve never been to Iceland, or are totally over it, watching ‘Cold Fever’ you’ll understand what it feels like to be lost in translation.
How to watch: US, UK and Icelandic DVD editions of the film are available from online retailers internationally and public libraries in Icelandic.