“The worst part about this is that it’s not even original,” says the young girl, now pregnant, and with seemingly no way out of the tiny place she was born. One could be forgiven for entertaining similar thoughts when watching ‘The Swan,’ the latest film about youngsters on the cusp of adulthood in rural Iceland. More is the surprise when we realise, about halfway through, that this is exactly the film we needed.
Start with a story
‘The Swan’ is Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir’s first feature film, but there’s nothing novice about it. This is partly because of the story. Most young Icelandic (male) filmmakers start out by wanting to make a movie and hoping to find a story along the way. Ása starts with the story and proceeds to make a film out of it. Perhaps more Icelandic filmmakers should look to Iceland’s literary heritage, rather than insist on writing their own scripts?
The author here is the wild child of Iceland letters, 85-year old Guðbergur Bergsson. Guðbergur is still best known for his 1966 work ‘Tómas Jónsson, Metsölubók,’ which heralded the advent of Modernism in Iceland.
He’s the only living Icelandic writer to have a museum dedicated to him, in his native Grindavík. He also inherited an airport from his Spanish boyfriend, so he is set for life. Not content with this, he writes columns that often seem to be shocking just for the sake of it. But now, a debut film by a 33-year old director may spur a reappraisal among the literati.
‘The Swan’, a novella from 1991, is a very literary piece of work, but Ása has managed to turn it into pure cinema. It is not so much an adaptation as a transformation from one form to another, bringing to mind Philip Kaufmann’s handling of the supposedly unfilmable ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being.’ The story is told via sight and sound, with only brief glimpses of the poetry from the source material. With the story already in place, Ása is free to get down to the business of making a film, producing beautiful shots, and drawing good performances from her multi-generational cast.
Perhaps the film errs in moving the setting to the present day, as evidenced by the presence of cell phones. Other aspects, such as keeping secret diaries, or sending children to stay on a farm for the summer, seem to belong to the past. But this film is a place outside of time, and so it’s only a minor gripe.
What makes the story relevant today is it’s handling of something that’s a greater taboo now than it was back then—pre-teen sexuality. Ása treats it expertly as we explore the world through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl who develops a fondness for an adult workman. Given the current climate, one is constantly worried that he will abuse her; but no, sometimes people just like being kind to children because, as Chaplin said, “people are like that.” Well, most of the time. We see glimpses of the adult world, but childhood is never violated. It’s this emphasis on innocence that makes ‘The Swan’ such a brave piece of work.