That this boring fishing town could be any kind of Sin City is very much the joke.
“Ó borg mín borg,” sings Björk over the end credits of 1992’s ‘Sódóma Reykjavík’—“Oh city, my city.” The film’s end credits play over a helicopter shot (an unlikely flourish for a low-budget Icelandic comedy of the early 90s) that travels across the still not fully filled-in sprawl of the suburbs, and into the heart of downtown. It flies from the then fairly newly erected Euro-style tower blocks of Breiðholt, one of the city’s largest and densest postwar suburban developments, across the still-bucolic Elliðaárdalur valley, slashes of asphalt, modernist bungalows, and finally down Laugavegur, the city’s ancient, dingy but still bustling commercial center, out to a Harpa-less harbour.
‘Sódóma Reykjavík’, which was among the first Icelandic films to play at Cannes (in Un Certain Regard), is by common acclaim the most successful of a number of early 90s films in which a rising generation of urban filmmakers began to celebrate and examine the way people, particularly young people, lived in the city. The god’s-eye-view of the film’s end credits comes after a full immersion in the farcical maelstrom of Reykjavík at night.
Axel (Björn Jörundur Friðbjörnsson) is a hapless mechanic who must find his mother’s remote control, or else, she threatens over the phone, she’ll pull the plug out of the bathtub where he keeps his goldfish. Axel’s quest first leads him to his spike-haired, dismissive sister’s punk friends (played by members of the band HAM, including future MP Ottar Proppé, and Sigurjón Kjartansson, later Jón Gnarr’s comedy partner and the writer of ‘Trapped’, who composed the buttrock soundtrack).
But when it transpires that the remote control melted in a fire (which Axel puts out with a pot of soup), he’s drawn deeper into the criminal underworld, over the course of a single dusk to dawn that will feature encounters with Hafnarfjordur bootleggers, and a shady nightclub owner and his bumbling bouncers (inexplicably dressed as Roman centurions for much of the film, with anatomically correct breastplates). There’s a kidnapping, threats of gangland violence, and even a car chase, though it ends when one of the cars stops for a red light.
‘Sódóma Reykjavík’ is known in English as ‘Remote Control’, though as with ‘Stella í Orlofi’ (see issue 10, 2016), it seems more natural to use the Icelandic name for a film that’s known to every Icelander and almost no one else. The bar currently called Gaukurinn was known as “Sódóma” in a previous incarnation, after the nightclub where much of the film takes place, a den of iniquity, headbanging sludge-metal, and terrible homebrew. (Meanwhile, the nearby bar Dúfnahólar 10 is named after Axel’s home address in a Breiðholt tower block, where the film reaches its madcap conclusion.)
The idea that this boring fishing town could be any kind of Sin City is very much the joke of ‘Sódóma Reykjavík’, in which aspiring gangsters dream of forming a criminal organization called M.I. (for “Mafia Iceland”). But the film’s depiction of fractured families and chance encounters, of bored overgrown kids filling their leisure time with booze and fireworks, shows an authentic fascination with the specifically urban lifestyle developing in 101 Reykjavík.
How to watch: Available to stream with English subtitles at www.icelandiccinema.com.