Icelandic cinema seems to be doing rather well with upwards of twelve premieres expected this year. For those who worried that all the Hollywood work coming to these shores lately would keep everyone too busy to make their own movies, the reverse actually seems to be the case. Icelandic filmmakers will have to step up their game, though, if they want to make a better film this year than Dagur Kári’s ‘Virgin Mountain’ (no, it’s not a ‘Game of Thrones’ prequel starring that bodybuilder guy), or as it’s called in Icelandic, ‘Fúsi’.
Dagur Kári first made his mark in 2003 with ‘Nói Albinói’, still widely considered one of the best Icelandic films of the century. He then went to Denmark, where he had gotten his film degree, to make ‘Voksne mennesker’ (“Dark Horse”) starring, among others, Nicolas Bro. Then he headed to the States to make ‘The Good Heart’, starring Paul Dano and the great Brian Cox (stepping in for Tom Waits, who had previously been attached to the project). While both films were competent and charming in their way, it is with his recent film that he seems set to establish himself as a truly great Icelandic filmmaker.
In defence of weirdoes and child molesters?
The titular Mountain (no, again, not that one) is played by Gunnar Hansson, a bit part actor in Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s Viking films, who here comes into his own as a leading man, if an unconventional one. You see, even if all sensible people know to respect people irrespective of their gender, race or creed, it still seems strangely okay to fear strange, middle-aged lonely guys who still live with their mothers. Fúsi is duly harassed by his co-workers as all 40-something virgins must be, and who knows if he might be a paedophile too?
Of course, the man-mountain-child-guy is entirely harmless. His one hobby is recreating the battle of El Alamein with a male friend of the same age who somehow has managed to get (and stay) married. The scene in which his friend’s son comes in and asks if he is allowed to play with his dad’s toy soldiers, and is told that they are not for children, is priceless.
Child abuse became a staple of Nordic cinema with Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘Festen’ in 1998, but that same Vinterberg led the counter charge in 2012 with ‘Jagten’, a drama about a teacher wrongly suspected of molesting his students.
The backlash is evident in Icelandic films today. In last year’s wildly popular ‘Vonarstræti’ (“Life in a Fishbowl”), a drunken poet with a heart of gold is driven away from a playground he passes every day by overzealous staff. More bizarrely, in ‘Austur’, which came out last month, the protagonist is saved by a paedophile whom we are led to believe is probably guilty of previous crimes. And here, Fúsi gets arrested, but the mistake is cleared up when it comes to light just how harmless he is. This is not an Icelandic ‘Jagten’, then, but merely one of many misadventures that come Fúsi’s way.
Naturally there is a love interest, Sjöfn, who is named after the goddess of sensuality and is beautifully played by Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir. But this is no Hollywood tripe where the lonely guy gets the perfect girl despite his flaws. Sjöfn has problems of her own, switching between manic and depressive, looking for a friend or pushing people away depending on her state. Their relationship is one of the more tender ones depicted in cinema in recent years.
A refreshing thought for us mortals
Icelandic films often fall into the trap of belabouring their point. It seems that in a culture that has only been making movies for 35 years, local directors still don’t entirely trust the audience to get the point without spelling it out. But what sets Dagur Kári apart as a first rate director is precisely how much he can say with just an expression on the face of his characters, or the gaps between the words.
None of the people here are really bad, not the girl who rejects Fúsi, the father who denounces him or even the workmates who torment him. Everyone is busy in their own world and fear or ignorance, not cruelty, is the root of all problems. Ultimately, it just seems to be very hard for people to reach out to one another. Except, of course, over a re-creation of the Battle of El Alamein.
As the film draws to a close, one starts to fear that Dagur will mess it up in the Icelandic way, but he manages to cling to a perfect palette right up to the end. Fúsi eventually prevails, even if just a little bit, not by winning all his battles but simply by having a good heart. In the age of superheroes, that’s a refreshing thought for us mortals.
‘Virgin Mountain’ can be seen at Bíó Paradís with English subtitles. See www.bioparadis.is for more information.