‘Stella í Orlofi’ (“Stella on Holiday”) is known in English as ‘The Icelandic Shock Station’, though referring to the 1986 film by its English title implies that the film is known abroad at all. It isn’t, except by the curious few who’ve given it a spin on IcelandAir’s in-flight entertainment. Yet this deceptively antic farce about a housewife accidentally bringing a Swedish alcoholic to a summer cottage remains perhaps the most beloved of Icelandic films: almost as old as the Icelandic Film Fund itself, it lodged itself in the culture early.
The Icelandic Film Fund initially sought to perpetuate lofty artistic and cultural traditions through this new (domestic) art form, beginning with its prestigious first film ‘Land and Sons’ (see issue 9, 2016), a literary adaptation with weighty themes of rural heritage versus urban capitalist modernization. But it was comedies that were consistently the biggest domestic hits—to see the particular foibles of Icelandic society on-screen for the first time was a shock, a pleasure and an affirmation. One comic set piece in ‘Stella í Orlofi’ concerns a pilot with a lucrative sideline as a black-market importer of Danish beer (in those days, before the lifting of the beer ban, everyone brought it back from abroad; strategies for dodging import duties, handed down from generation to generation, persist to this day).
However, like ‘Land and Sons’, ‘Stella í Orlofi’, is, in its way, concerned with the opposition of rural values and modern urban consumer culture. Stella is a bubbly housewife in Reykjavík, living with her drunk, surly cheating husband and smart-aleck kids, in a house full of high-tech 80s conveniences (Stella’s on-trend floral blouses and bright yellow sweatsuit give the film a brazen datedness that has helped endear it to older and younger viewers alike). When her husband breaks a few bones and burns himself during a freak accident, Stella decides to pick up her husband’s business partner for a fishing weekend. Not knowing her husband was actually set to meet his Danish mistress, Stella buffalos an unsuspecting Swedish drunk into her station wagon. He came to Iceland for rehab, and gets “shock treatment” in the form of the farcical complications that ensue, including a famous salmon-fishing scene scored to the Icelandic equivalent of “Yakety Sax.”
‘Stella í Orlofi’ was written by Guðný Halldórsdóttir, later a prolific arthouse filmmaker (and the daughter of Halldor Laxness). It is the only feature film directed by Þórhildur Þorleifsdóttir, who has worked mostly in the theater. Indeed, the wild slapstick and broad directing seems quite stagy, played to the back row—the actors pull faces and ping around the frame, rubbery as few movie actors have been since the coming of sound and the fading out of the old music-hall comedians.
But Þórhildur’s other profession is also relevant: she served four years in Parliament as a member of the Women’s List, the feminist party of the 80s and 90s. There is a clear, if subtle feminist message to the film: as played by Edda Björgvinsdóttir, Stella’s blithe perma-grin and buoyantly blow-dried blonde hair become the armor which enable her to grapple with serious challenges (if also zany and bizarre), in her marriage and in her everyday life in general. The trip to the country is a cure for her as much as for her rehabbing guest: a zippy catharsis, a salve for the hidden wounds of Reykjavík’s suddenly prosperous bourgeois family life.
How to watch: Stream it at icelandiccinemaonline.com, or check the in-flight entertainment options on IcelandAir.