Didda Jónsdóttir, who has played a frizzy-haired, pot-smoking hippie in four films by Solveig Anspach, remembers the first time she met her director. It was at the local swimming pool, Laugardalslaug, when they were both girls.
Didda and I are talking about Solveig’s film ‘The Aquatic Effect’, a movie about swimming pools, swimming lessons, lifeguards and life itself. The last film by the Iceland-born, France-based Solveig, who died of cancer last summer after the film’s completion, ‘The Aquatic Effect’ will be the Opening Night film at this year’s Reykjavík International Film Festival, on 29 September. Solveig’s films feature water, water everywhere, as regular RIFF moviegoers remember from 2013’s ‘Lulu in the Nude’ (with its evocative, transformative seaside locations) and 2012’s ‘Queen of Montreuil’ (whose heroine at one point shares a bathtub with a sea lion).
I suggest to Didda that her story of Solveig at the pool suggests the heavy hand of fate, or at least a very poetic aptness. She avers: “Sometimes I think, Wow! Am I making this up?” But Didda vividly recalls Solveig’s mother, with red hair and freckles, like Didda—a kindred spirit, if only in the younger bather’s mind. Solveig was forever a foreigner: an Icelander in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil, where she lived and worked as an adult; a Frenchwoman in Iceland. “If you’re a little bit out there,” says Didda, “she picked up on that.”
Which brings us back, once more, to the water, the stuff of life. In ‘The Aquatic Effect’, crane operator Samir (Samir Guesmi) develops a crush on the lifeguard Agathe (Florence Loiret Caille), and takes swim lessons in order to get closer—not telling her he can already swim. Lifeguarding and swim lessons become a metaphor for trust in a relationship—and then for risk-taking, as Samir follows Agathe to Iceland for an international lifeguarding conference(!), posing as an Israeli delegate with a firm belief that public pools can bring peace to the Middle East.
Solveig “wasn’t an extrovert,” says Didda, but nevertheless, “she trusted people. She trusted the humanity of people. She wished people would talk, and love, and stop being stupid. Water was her way of telling us that we are all made the same substance.”
The whimsical yet straightfaced scenario of ‘The Aquatic Effect’ is characteristic of Solveig’s films, which embrace human quirk and unlikely situations with a sweet sense of humour and a serious empathy. The everyday emotional ups and downs which may mean the world to us, but which we would never think of as cinematic, have the potential, in Solveig’s films, to break out into a grand adventure. In particular, the American critic Scout Tafoya in a 2015 tribute, “She addressed issues facing middle aged women: feelings of inferiority, mental and physical deterioration, abuse, the increasing difficulty of social lives with age,” and yet her movies “boil over with life so rich and full it gets tangled.”
The French scenes in ‘The Aquatic Effect’ were shot in Solveig’s local pool, in Montreuil; many of the people in the film are people from her own life, and a number of the characters recur: Didda’s character, Anna, was the protagonist of Solveig’s 2008 film ‘Back Soon’, and appeared alongside Agathe and Samir in ‘Queen of Montreuil’. Solveig premiered her first dramatic feature, the serious, semiautobiographical cancer film ‘Haut les coeurs!’ in 1999, a couple years shy of her 40th birthday; unlikely new beginnings ultimately became her great subject in films like ‘Queen of Montreuil’, about an early widowhood, and ‘Lulu in the Nude’, about a married woman’s midlife crisis. “She had to fight for her characters,” Didda reflects—potential producers questioned her films’ focus on less than glamorous people.
The cast of life
Solveig cast Didda for the first time in her 2003 film ‘Stormy Weather’. “She’d been looking for an actress,” Didda remembers, “but everyone was too perfect, too beautiful. She saw me in Prikið, ordering a coffee, looked into my eyes and smiled. I thought she was mistaking me for someone else. I said, ‘You’re wrong,’ but she just knew.” Didda says she exclaimed to the filmmaker something like, “I’m not an actress, I’m a poet,” which Solveig actually admired: for many years, she didn’t have the self-confidence to declare to strangers, “I’m a filmmaker.”
“After that,” Didda says, answering the occasional call from Solveig to be a new film “was always a little extra adventure in my life.”
Over the course of the decade in which Didda played Anna three times, Solveig drew from Didda’s wardrobe, her photos, her poems. “I liked that it was good enough for her,” Didda reflects. “I guess it was good enough for me. I would sometimes tell her, ‘My character would not do this—because I would not do this.’ But everything she found beautiful about me was something I had wanted to fix. She treated me and my life with the utmost respect.”
Didda has had time to think about Solveig’s films: she sees a lot of Solveig in Agathe, who is always “trying to find answers, to do the right thing.” As Anna, she thinks, “I’m there to support her character.”
“We put ourselves somewhere in our work,” Didda muses, and though Solveig’s films are reliably delightful, the delight was hard-earned. The filmmaker struggled with her cancer for some time, but quietly: in part, Didda suggests to me, because she was worried that news of her ill-health would give financiers a reason to withdraw their support for her projects. And her work was her life, especially towards the end: Didda has indelible memories of Solveig directing through her illness, “bleeding from her mouth, not wanting to stop.” ‘The Aquatic Effect’ is the fruit of Solveig Anspach’s labour to leave one final film behind; come Opening Night at RIFF, there might not be a dry eye in the house.
The Aquatic Effect will be screened at Háskólabíó on September 29 at 20:00 and October 2 at 19:40. For the rest of the RIFF program check here.