The Sea (Hafið) (2002)

by Elbert Ventura

29 May 2003


Family Business

Baltasar Kormákur’s Hafið (The Sea) may be set on unfamiliar soil, but the dramaturgical ground it covers is awfully overgrazed. The Icelandic director’s sophomore effort represents a comedown from his wonderful debut, 101 Reykjavik. That slacker-hipster joint coasted on a cosmopolitan vibe and Kormákur’s look-ma-no-hands curlicues. The Sea is altogether more ambitious and less inspired, plagued by a transparent gravity that Kormakur may mistake for maturity.

The movie brings together the cheerless members of an aging patriarch’s family for a reunion. Thordur (Gunnar Eyjólfsson) is an imperious grizzly of a father whose limp belies his barely extinguished ferocity. He lords over a curiously disconnected domain. Standing by his side is Kristín (Kristbjörg Kjeld), his wife and former sister-in-law. Sharing their home is María (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir), Kristín’s daughter from her previous marriage. To Thordur’s house flock his three grown children: Ágúst (Josh Hamilton look-alike Hilmir Snær Guðnason), his youngest, who now lives in Paris; Ragnheiður (Guðrún Gísladóttir), the disagreeable middle child; and Haraldur (Sigurður Skúlason), a hapless milquetoast who works for dad.

cover art

The Sea (hafið)

Director: Baltasar Kormákur
Cast: Gunnar Eyjólfsson, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Hélène de Fougerolles, Sven Nordin, Kristbjörg Kjeld, Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir

(Palm Pictures)
US theatrical: 16 May 2003 (Limited release)

Thordur’s coming retirement and the fate of the fish-packing business he’s run all his life are on the agenda. In the twilight of his career, the gruff mogul gazes over his kingdom with self-satisfaction. Having lost his first wife when the children were still young, Thordur takes pride in providing them a good life—and doesn’t hesitate to remind them of it, too. He places his hopes particularly on Ágúst, whom he sent off to business school in France. Little does he know that business, much less fish, holds no interest whatsoever for the budding musician. Meanwhile, the ineffectual Haraldur (perhaps Icelandic for Fredo?) looks on in quiet envy and nurses his own ideas about the future of the business.

As with all such gatherings, everyone greets everyone else with hugs and kisses—save for Maria, who shoots Françoise (Hélène de Fougerolles), Ágúst’s Parisian squeeze, a dagger look when they first meet. The cozy mood is only enhanced by that venerable cheap-laugh device, the potty-mouthed grandma (Herdís Þorvaldsdóttir) who pontificates on everything from farts to sex. Amiable hors d’oeuvres predictably give way to a snippy dinner. Before the night is out, a potent cocktail of abuse, incest, repressed anger and other items on the menu of dysfunction will be served.

Packed with incident, the movie couldn’t be more rote. Kormákur parades the skeletons from out of the closet dutifully, mistaking strident histrionics for shattering drama. The reunion disintegrates first into a shoutfest, then into an orgy of destruction. A bitter Ragnheiður bulldozes a nemesis’ car into a pond; her son spray paints their SUV with accusing dollar signs. After a violent confrontation between Thordur and Ágúst, the movie boils over in a (literally) conflagrant climax. Compounding matters is an oddly truncated denouement that rushes things to a pat conclusion.

Kormákur’s critique of generational disconnect is as just as facile. Gone is 101 Reyjkavik’s‘s drollery, replaced here by heavy-handed pokes at The Way We Live Now. The children in the movie are depicted as zombified brats benumbed by television and Nintendo. Ragnheiður’s teenage son barely says a word, spending much of the trip to Thordur’s transfixed by his hand-held video game. At the gathering, he disses the homemade spread and asks for a hamburger and fries. As if the point hadn’t been hammered home, Kormákur has the sullen boy break into a diner late in the movie to—what else?—play an arcade game there.

Just about the only unfamiliar thing in the movie is its far-flung location. With its stark peaks and desolate spaces, the setting suggests the edge of the world. (Between this and Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing [2002], also shot in Iceland, the country has proven to be a photogenic find.) The village itself is a hushed little hamlet, populated by a community stubbornly clinging to an old way of life amid disappearing borders and an encroaching world.

That keen snapshot of a realm on the brink of extinction—or is it evolution?—nearly salvages The Sea. In a movie brimming with sins-of-the-past revelations, perhaps the biggest shock is seeing two Asian immigrants sitting in a bar. Their presence prompts a muttered complaint from the bartender, but also underscores the extent to which the planet has shrunk, for better and for worse. Even as foreigners flock to the remote village for a chance at a better life, Thordur stands steadfast against the competitive pressures of a globalized economy, trying to keep the jobs in the community. “The world’s changing,” says someone at one point. “Everyone wants better work for their kids.” That struggle, between keeping things as they are and keeping up with the world, offers more compelling drama than the movie’s shrill emoting.

With its Scandinavian gloom and eye-roller of a family plot, The Sea bears more than a passing resemblance to Thomas Vinterberg’s overrated The Celebration. Kormákur’s movie isn’t as disposable as Vinterberg’s: the narrative may be unremarkable, but what’s on the periphery—the ambivalence about globalization, the gorgeous widescreen photography—holds your attention. Ultimately a disappointment, chalk this up as a failed stab at big-league seriousness. Shooting for King Lear, Kormákur instead gives us much ado about nothing.


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