Last year I reported that watching a movie while pleasantly submerged in a geothermal pool was one of the high points of the Reykjavik International Film Festival. Regrettably, this year’s aquatic presentation (of the ever-fabulous Some Like It Hot, just days before Tony Curtis’s death, along with a retro-swimsuit fashion show) occurred prior to my arrival. So too did the fake-orgasm contest, which surely promised better entertainment than the trying documentary that inspired it, Jo Sol’s Fake Orgasm, which uses its title competition to provide American performance artist Lazlo Pearlman with an excuse to very publicly flaunt his (or her?) sexuality. (Pearlman would no doubt retort that such comments bespeak discomfort, but, actually, no, it’s just not a good film.)
Other notable side events included a drive-in showing of John Waters’s Cry-Baby, a video conference with Noam Chomsky, and a dialogue between honorary guest Jim Jarmusch and homegrown talent Dagur Kári. These attractions complemented an already packed slate of movies, which in this seventh edition, presented many—arguably too many—more options than in years past. “Is bigger better?” must be a question that this festival, and numerous others, continually ask, particularly when a city’s locals and visitors often can’t fill theaters to capacity. That said, though, a welcome venue addition this year was the four-screen Bíó Paradís theater, which will serve as an art-house and specialty cinema year-round, and hopefully help to foster a larger base of dedicated moviegoers.
RIFF’s competition section is called New Visions, and it made good on its name, with each of the 12 entries offering, to varying degrees, something fresh. (Full disclosure: I served on the three-person jury; the winner of the Golden Puffin award was Michelangelo Frammartino’s stunningly beautiful and ambitious The Four Times, which continues to garner much praise at festivals around the world.)
Another competition standout was Mike Ott’s audience-award-winning Littlerock, which will, by some, be unjustly categorized as mumblecore—though with a different kind of communication breakdown. The mostly aimless characters do talk a lot, but it’s a language barrier—the protagonist, Atsuko, a Japanese tourist stuck in nowheresville California, speaks not a word of English—that accounts for the majority of the inevitable misunderstandings. (Another competition offering, Marian Crisan’s Tomorrow, also featured seemingly dissimilar people forging bonds without grasping each other’s words.) Littlerock is a sedate yet amusing film with an underlying sense of unease—viewers can’t help but feel protective of Atsuko—and Ott certainly displays a more mature visual style than any mumblecore director ever has.
In Hans Petter Moland’s deliciously deadpan A Somewhat Gentle Man, Stellan Skarsgård, sporting a long, wispy ponytail, gives a spectacular performance as Ulrik, a man of few words. Though fresh from a 12-year prison stint for killing a man who slept with his wife, he is so passively agreeable and sloth-like—traits that are used to great comic effect in some truly unappealing sex scenes—that it’s hard to imagine he has a violent streak. The film is less successful as a crime story than a human drama about a father’s attempt at reconciliation with a son who has long considered him dead, and the question of whether Ulrik will again turn to the dark side seems almost superfluous.
Impending violence also looms throughout The Cameramurderer, a tense, if ultimately predictable, thriller, assuredly directed (and co-written) by the Romanian Robert Adrian Pejo. Two couples gather for a peaceful Easter weekend at a gorgeous lakeside house. Three are friends who share deep, intricate ties, while the fourth is the newly pregnant girlfriend of the group’s host and essentially an outsider, just meeting these visitors for the first time. Their initial quietude is quickly disrupted by news that three local boys have gone missing, and by the subsequent drunken revelation by one of the guests that he has recently viewed a snuff film online that might be connected with the disappearance. As things begin to unravel, it increasingly looks like the girlfriend is an innocent among wolves.
Two additional grim selections, Thomas Vinterberg’s Submarino and Aleksi Salmenperä’s Bad Family, went toe to toe in the most-damaging-upbringing stakes. Submarino just might be the film fans of The Celebration have been waiting over a decade for. Vinterberg’s latest is a devastating, completely mesmerizing portrait of two brothers, victims of a neglectful, abusive alcoholic mother, who experience a horrible trauma as children that they are still battling to overcome many years later—with little success. The older brother (the terrific Jakob Cedergren) is a hard drinker just released from prison for taking a broken heart out on a complete stranger by beating him to a pulp. The inexplicably nameless younger brother (Peter Plaugborg) is a single father and heroin addict who turns to dealing. Watching their harrowing parallel struggles for survival, you can practically taste their pain. The only ray of hope in this dark world is the younger brother’s angelic son—perhaps because his corruption has only just begun.
With a lighter, but more darkly cynical touch, Bad Family tells the story of an upper-class Finnish family that comes completely undone when the death of the first wife of Mikael (Ville Virtanen) brings his unwanted daughter into the home. He immediately alienates his current wife and their young son by moving them into hotel, and then his older son when he begins to suspect that his two teenage children, strangers until now, are engaging in an incestuous relationship. Tightly wound, Mikael is a judge by profession and will go to any lengths to maintain order in the home, although his actions only make matters worse.
Also dealing with sticky family matters were a trio of previously released Icelandic films, reprised for the benefit of festival visitors. Iceland’s Oscar submission, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s touching, ultra personal Mamma Gógó, lovingly traces his relationship with his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, while both Hilmar Oddsson’s December and Valdís Óskarsdóttir’s King’s Road chronicle a thirtysomething man’s return home after being abroad for years. December is the more optimistic film, but King’s Road is the more engaging one. (Disclosure #2: the writer-director, better known for her extensive editing work, was also a member of the jury.) All three films capture a little something of the magic and the mostly charming peculiarities of Iceland and its inhabitants—qualities that in part account for why Reykjavik remains an especially enticing festival locale.