Liz Taylor famously dissed her own National Velvet as a movie about “a girl in love with a horse”. I can only speculate what the last of the Studio Era’s screen sirens would have made of Of Horses and Men, Iceland’s submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Equine affection — no, not the unspeakable kind — and dependency are the bloodstream of this offbeat drama, which I saw for the second time this past January at the Scandinavian Film Festival L.A., which unfurled over four days (successive weekends) at the Writer’s Guild Theater in the golden ghetto of Beverly Hills. 2014 was the 15th edition of this modest fest, and also included were movies from the Baltic states, under the umbrella of Baltic Film Expo @SFFLA. If Sweden has historically been the 800-lb gorilla of northern European cinema, then SFFLA clearly demonstrated that Sverige‘s neighbors also deserve a seat at the table.
Most films are either plot or character-driven; much of indie cinema focuses on character development, the opposite of current mega-budget Hollywood’s Age of Spectacle. Of Horses and Men is neither. This slice of small-town life on windswept Iceland can be read as a mediation on the complex relationship between mankind — in this case, the residents of a close-knit rural community — and its most useful beast of burden.
The film contains several breathtaking sequences, some of which induce giggles — a randy stallion who will not be denied — others will make you gasp, and I refuse to spill the beans. The admittedly episodic structure works, particularly in the service of deadpan humor, but the visuals are another calling card. Director Benedikt Erlinggson luxuriates in near-fetishistic shots of horses in motion, set to a rousing score, and although the townsfolk possess cars and tractors, the motorized vehicles seem superfluous in their lives. Indeed, the equids serve as alternatives to gas-powered transport. Carroll Ballard is justly noted for his poetic visual grasp of the interplay between people and animals, but I dare say he would tip his hat to Erlingsson, whose narrative arguably blurs the line between man and beast.
Another Icelandic treat, presented in cooperation with Screamfest, was Reynir Lingdal’s Frost, a claustrophobic, seat-of-the-pants ‘supernatural’ thriller that’s best described as “Blair Witch” on the tundra. Lingdal’s usage of hand-held cameras and shifting points-of-view keeps the viewer off balance, and he also employs choppy, high-tech sound effects — in tandem with frenetic split-screen imagery — in the terrifying moments, so you’re left to wonder if the horrific force enveloping a team of hapless scientists is a natural phenomenon or something man-made, a slippery, intangible ‘creature’ perhaps loosed from cyberspace. As a vehicle of terror, it’s more effective than Larry Fessenden’s similarly-themed The Last Winter, and it definitely stoked my undiagnosed affinity for horror tales set in frigid climes.
Crossing the straits to Sweden brings us to Eat, Sleep, Die, a sharp neorealist work that looks beyond fresh-scrubbed archetypes of ABBA, tasty meatballs, and indomitable Volvo wagons schussing through snowdrifts. Rasa (Nermina Lukac), a twenty-something food packager, lives hand-to-mouth with her immigrant father, almost in a spouse-like relationship. Their lives are complicated by their non-Nordic heritage, and Rasa’s feisty, tomboyish manner seems appropriate after we see the trash-talking conflicts she and her friends have with other local toughs. If director Gabriela Pichler’s intention was to reveal the grime underneath Sweden’s shiny, socialist fingernails, her camera’s documentarist eye nails it, and an infomercial touting the attractions of Rasa’s employment-challenged region provides a wickedly ironic counterpoint to her dead-end existence. Movies of this genre tend to depict sex starkly, but Eat, Sleep, Die is surprisingly chaste, and one wonders if that’s by design. You may recall the Julia Roberts vehicle Eat Pray Love of a few years back, and I also wonder if Pichler intended her film’s title as an inversion of the Roberts movie. The first film depicts a privileged American ‘discovering’ herself while on a globetrotting odyssey. Eat, Sleep, Die presents a impoverished family with no such choices, on the lower rungs of the developed world’s 99%, adrift in forces beyond their control.
Sweden’s neighbor Finland served up The Disciple, a period drama set in 1939, though I couldn’t glean any WWII allegorical elements from the plot, much as I tried. Young Karl, looking almost malnourished arrives on a tiny islet, to assist the lighthouse keeper — a cruel martinet — and his beleaguered son, Gustaf, who has been home-schooled and never seen life off the island. I suppose you could say that The Disciple is a treatise on isolation, and how that shapes human behavior, for good or bad. Through no plan of his own, Karl’s appearance provokes a chain reaction of jealous resentment within his emotionally-fragile adopted family.
Familial bonds, and the difficulty of maintaining them, is also a topic of Janis Nords’s Mother, I Love You, one of the few non-Scandinavian titles at the fest. Probably the first Latvian film I’ve seen, Mother presents Raimonds (a wistful Kristofers Konovalovs) as a mischievous though sweet-natured boy who can’t seem to avoid trouble, much to the consternation of his mom, a hard-working hospital physician who works many evenings. When he and his best bud Peteris get into a legal jam, Raimonds only digs himself into a deeper hole through a web of lies, and his behavior is immediately familiar to most children at that awkward pre-pubescent age. Konovalovs’ expressive, brooding face carries much of the story, a never-didactic lesson on the consequences of irresponsibility. A favorite on the festival circuit, Mother, I Love You has captured prizes at the Berlinale and the Los Angeles Film Festival, and, justifiably, was Latvia’s official Best Foreign Film candidate for the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, not to mention its inclusion in the recent New Directors New Films screening series.
Less enterprising than Raimonds is Pelle, the hero — literally — of the Danish box-office smash Antboy. Pelle is a meek grade schooler who’s miraculously transformed into the titular superhero after an insect bite. Predictably, he’s drawn into battle against a diabolical villain, also of multi-legged nomenclature. An amiable homage with nods to Spiderman and other perennial characters, this suburban — and Pelle’s town is a dead ringer for countless American burgs – adventure is buoyed by a knowing sense of humor and a sharp satirical heart. I couldn’t help but notice how culturally unspecific both the narrative and physical trappings are, and I suppose the film’s producers felt similarly, as Antboy was recently released, albeit in an English-dubbed version, in the United States. It will seem distinctly American to many stateside viewers, and whether that’s good or bad depends on one’s frame of reference or what one seeks to glean from the story. I’ve no doubt that the tweener crowd will dig it, but who’s to say that Gen Xers like myself won’t also?
Finally, there’s Sweden’s We Are the Best, a paean to insouciant, youthful brattiness. Set in 1982, two androgynous preteen girls, Bobo and Klara, try to launch a punk rock band, counter-programming the vapid teen-dream pop that their classmates swoon over. Their thick-as-thieves friendship is tested when a third girl enters the picture, and further complications ensue when emerging hormones bring boys around. We Are the Best revels in numerous comic moments, and the self-absorption of Klara and Bobo is by turns amusing, exasperating, and utterly familiar.