“How typical,” mumbles Leifur, ‘XL’s protagonist as he attends a performance art exhibition, only to be shushed by his vacuous date.
“What do you mean?” she asks as the lead man in the piece produces a man-sized stuffed pink bear, which he proceeds to eviscerate with a carving knife.
“Oh, you know, ‘art.’ It’s just all so typical. He’s got that bear, and now he’s stabbing it,” rants the overweight, overdrinking MP, not quite drunk but definitely not sober.
“Oh, be quiet. You just don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Granted, there are times in Marteinn Thorsson’s film when you can’t help but agree with Leifur. With its done-to-death melodrama, often needlessly vulgar dialogue and puerile sex scenes (the movie’s first penis appears roughly at the ninety-second mark), ‘XL’ expends much of its ammunition on easy targets, but there’s more than enough good stuff here to elevate it above the average.
The good chunk
A large chunk of that good stuff stems from Ólafur Darri Ólafsson. His measured intensity and easygoing charisma is not only very watchable, but also utterly believable as he veers from meetings with the Prime Minister to raucous drunken fuckathons with his twentysomething girlfriend, Æsa. A man who gets away with this much has to be likable, and Leifur is that in spades; it is a testament to Ólafur’s simple power that Leifur basically spends the whole film using and abusing every woman in his life and every form of alcohol imported to Iceland, and yet one leaves the theatre thinking he’s basically a decent guy.
The screenplay occasionally gets in his way, with its forced exposition and emotional shortcomings typical of Icelandic film, but for the most part, the dialogue is direct and to the point, and Marteinn prefers to let the camera do most of the explaining, with plenty of close-ups poring over Ólafur and the host of competent supporting actors (including the utterly loathsome Helgi Björnsson playing Eiríkur, an utterly loathsome friend of Leifur’s; relatively recent discovery María Birta giving a calm and vulnerable performance as Æsa; and Þorsteinn Bachmann giving us his smarmy, shit-eating best as the prime minister), their inner turmoil given voice not with cheesy lines or monologues, but with quiet sobs and uncertain blinks.
The cinematography and editing all-too-frequently stray into overachievement when a simple stroke would have sufficed, however, spending way too much time trying to capture the feel of drunkenness with choppy frames of black spliced haphazardly into the film’s seemingly endless party scenes. Blurry hand-held POV shots try all too hard to make you feel like you’re the idiot reaching for that one last drop from the bottom of the bottle, and with the exception of one or two fairly poignant moments of public embarrassment, they all fall hopelessly flat.
Many would attest to the film’s strength in depicting, fairly realistically, the life of a functional alcoholic in what passes for Icelandic high society: our beleaguered government. The truth is that individuals like Leifur can and do exist at every level of Icelandic society (although perhaps not quite as passionately indulgent as he is), but that is not what lies at the heart of ‘XL’’s message. Rather, it is the fact there is nothing separating the highest statesman in the land from the lowest filth vomiting in our gutters. There’s just not many enough of us around to separate the two, and in highlighting this, the film does bring to light a certain uniquely Icelandic state of being, living in that weird little first-world country where everybody knows everybody else.
This is perhaps best expressed in Leifur’s encounter with a cabbie who recognises him as an MP. The cabbie, played with reliable solidarity by theatre veteran Stefán Jónsson, offers him a can of snuff (the tobacco, not the porn). Leifur politely refuses, but offers the cabbie a swig of his hip flask, which he accepts. The two share a nice moment, with Leifur confident that the cabbie might tell friends and family about the encounter, but he’d never dream of taking it to the press; it’s just not how things work in this country. It’s a great little scene, one of the film’s highlights.
All things pass into the night
As for the rest of it, there’s just not much to work with, really. Leifur dodges his responsibilities with booze and a particularly uninspired blackmail scheme, with the whole thing predictably culminating in some sort of jail-cell denouement as the soundtrack pitter-patters away inconspicuously. There are hints of something darker and more insidiously cruel at work here and there, especially where Leifur’s relationship with Æsa is explored, and it is gradually revealed that the poor girl genuinely has feelings for the lout. A particularly powerful scene comes late in the film where Æsa breastfeeds a doll, but the resulting confrontation is stripped of all subtlety by its violent conclusion.
In short, there is promise here, with generous helpings of darkness, talent, truth and just the right amount of embellishment, but too much of it feels forced and hammed-up for it to say much of anything. The bottom of the bottle has been visited so many times in film that a revisit needs more than this, somehow, and a faint feeling of déjà vu never quite escapes you.
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