From Iceland — The Hardest Day Of The Year: Baltasar Kormákur's '101 Reykjavík'

The Hardest Day Of The Year: Baltasar Kormákur’s ‘101 Reykjavík’

The Hardest Day Of The Year: Baltasar Kormákur’s ‘101 Reykjavík’

Published December 11, 2016

“Christmas—the hardest day of the year.” Hlýnur (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) is dreading the traditional Icelandic Christmas dinner, rendered in Baltasar Kormákur’s ‘101 Reykjavík’ (2000) as a soul-sucking trip out of the downtown bubble and into the heart of bourgeois darkness: a new Scandi-modern house in Grafarvogur, full of interminable jæja-ing about the weather, the Land Cruiser, the shopping trip overseas. It’s only natural for Hlýnur to spend the afternoon hiding behind his mother’s sunglasses, sparking up a cigarette for the pre-tween cousin watching TV in the den, and fantasising about taking a pump-action shotgun to the entire extended family.

‘101 Reykjavík’ is many things: the stylistically confident first feature film by Baltasar Kormákur, then an prominent actor and now Iceland’s leading cinematic exporter; a still unparalleled reference point for the downtown postcode’s mythic nightlife, a ritual scroll of decadence unfurling continuously from Friday night to whenever everyone wakes up on Sunday. But it’s also a Christmas movie.

“I drop dead each weekend,” Hlýnur says, as he walks through blizzard-beaten streets to the pointless eardrum-bursting sardine-packed oblivion of Kaffibarinn, where everyone’s already slept with everyone else. He kills his days eating cereal in the bath, and watching online porn—whether or not his mother, with whom he lives, is in the room. (There is a strong Oedipal component to this pushing-30 unemployed man-baby’s emotional life.)

Baltasar’s adaptation of Hallgrímur Helgason’s zeitgeist novel of 1996 plays up Hlýnur’s deliberately “un-PC” worldview, a mix of impotent misogyny and witty self-loathing; the holding pattern is nailed down further by Hlýnur’s go-nowhere mates, played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and Baltasar himself, brazenly and horribly soul-patched. They go to Kolaportið to haggle over the price of a white plastic Christmas tree, and host the all-night house-party to which Hlýnur takes his mother’s close friend, seductive flamenco instructor Lola (early Almodóvar muse Victoria Abril), after watching the fireworks. (Baltasar builds the New Year’s sequence wonderfully, capturing the mix of alien-invasion carnival grandeur and casual anarchy of Reykjavík’s rolling, collective festive-season fireworks show, mixing panoramic long shots looking out over Tjörnin from Vesturbær’s Catholic church, with more intimate views of parents and children setting off firecrackers in backyards and on sidewalks.)

‘101 Reykjavík’ is the climax of an unofficial trilogy charting the birth of the modern downtown scene over two decades. ‘Rókk í Reykjavík’ (1982; see Issue 9 of this year) documented the punk underground that emerged after the lifting of the live music ban; slacker farce ‘Sódóma Reykjavík’ (1992; see Issue 11 of this year) embellished the alternate-universe nightlife that popped up following the legalization of beer. ‘101 Reykjavík’ feels contemporary: fifteen-odd years along, the crush at Kaffibarinn hasn’t abated, though there’s fewer Awesomely 90s Britpop haircuts and jumpers to be seen these days. The film arrived just as Reykjavík’s proximity to London airports and weekly Saturnalia were turning it into “the new Ibiza,” in the worried words of Damon Albarn, who, before composing the ‘101 Reykjavík’ score with ex-Sugarcube Einar Örn Benediktsson, dragged his Blur bandmates up here in the summer of 1996 to record much of their self-titled fifth album, and spent so much time at Kaffibarinn that its then-owners started letting him drink for free and telling everyone he had an ownership stake—a marketing gambit which, hand-in-hand with ‘101 Reykjavík’, cemented the bar’s iconic status. Set around the end of one year and the beginning of another, ‘101 Reykjavík’ isn’t just a story of coming-of-age or rebirth or whatever—it’s the first Icelandic movie of the 21st century.

How to watch: The film has been released on English-subtitled Region 1 and Region 2 DVDs, and is available to stream from Amazon.co.uk.

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