„The worst part about this is that its 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 half way though, that this is exactly the film we needed.
Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir is here making her first feature film, but there is nothing of the novice about it. Partly, this is because of the story. Most young Icelandic (male) filmmakers start out by wanting to make a movie and hope 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 rich literary heritage rather than insist on writing their own scripts, especially, as is sometimes the case, they are better filmmakers than writers.
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 is 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 more driven by the need to shock for the shake of shocking rather than to tell it like it is and damn the consequences. But now a debut film by a 33-year old director may signal his reappraisal among the literaty.
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 transformation of one form to another, bringing to mind Philip Kaufmann’s handling of the supposedly unfilmable Unbearable Lightness of Being. The story is told via sight and sound, with only brief glimpses of the poetry of the source material. With the story already in place, Ása can get down to the business of making a film, producing beautiful shots and good performances from a multi-generational cast.
Perhaps the film errs in moving the setting to the present day, as evidenced by the child having a mobile phone and perhaps by the young moving to Berlin. Other aspects, such as secret diaries, the horsemen’s ball or even the very idea of sending children to stay on a farm for the summer, while all still possible today, seem to belong more to 1991. But this is a place outside of time and only a minor gripe.
What makes the story relevant today is it’s handling of what is a greater taboo now than it was then. Perhaps it takes a Guðbergur or a Freud to deal with pre-teen sexuality, but Ása treats it expertly. 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. Not because of some ulterior motive, but, as Chaplin said, because people are like that. Well, most of the time. We get glimpses of the adult world, but childhood is never violated. And yet taken seriously. It is the emphasis on innocence that makes The Swan such a brave piece of work.