Dir: Baltasar Kormakur. Iceland/France/Norway. 2002. 109mins
The wicked sense of humour that helped make his sprightly debut feature, Reykjavik 101, an off-the-wall delight is all but submerged in Baltasar Kormakur's follow-up, which offers an even bleaker portrait of Icelandic desperation and dysfunction. As a roiling family psychodrama, The Sea brings to mind much more the tormented agonising of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen than it does the eccentric new wave of droll Scandinavian filmmaking with their affectionate foibles. The emotional fireworks are relentless here and yet for all the volcanic intensity the film fails to spark any tragic affinity with even one of the wretched characters. One is left feeling as cold and cut off as they are in their austere landscape, while still marvelling at the view.
As with his previous film, Baltasar has scored yet again at the Icelandic box office, where The Sea out-muscled Vin Diesel's XXX on their opening weekend together despite playing on two fewer screens. To date it has taken $442,393 from five screens, and after seven weeks is still in the nation's top three. Backed up by solid reviews at home, the domestic performance is perhaps not so surprising: in a country of around 280,000 people Kormakur is already something of a household name both as filmmaker and actor and his latest film's preoccupations with fishing and family politics are embedded into the Icelandic psyche. Moreover, The Sea is based on a 1991 stage play of some local distinction, which won its playwright Olafur Haukur Simonarson several honours including The Icelandic Theatre Prize.
Elsewhere, however, the $2m film's largely inhospitable tone will ensure its place as much more of a curiosity item for the festival circuit and Euro-friendly art-house fringes despite having secured distribution in some twenty territories already, including both the US and UK through Palm Pictures.
If 101 Reykjavik rudely disabused the film world of their romantic enchantment with Iceland's major city, The Sea is sure to do the same for its coastal communities. As spectacular as the natural setting might be for this remote fishing village on a fjord in eastern Iceland, it's not a place that tourists will be flocking to. The housing is impressively ugly for such a picturesque spot and everything seemingly revolves around the local fisheries, an industry so smelly that it is left to immigrants from Poland and parts of Asia to do the dirty work. Those actually raised here as children tend to migrate to the relatively bright lights of the relatively big city at the first opportunity they get.
Lording over this bleak domain is Thordur Haraldsson, a sermonising old patriarch who refuses to succumb to the economic realities now facing him. While others are selling their valuable fishing quotas to bigger, more efficient corporations based elsewhere, he would rather cling on to his outmoded fishing boat and his local fish processing plant in the stubborn hope that this will keep the community alive. On the eve of his retirement, he summons his family home for a rare reunion in order to disclose plans to hand over the business reins to his youngest son. What he discovers, however, is that all three of his children, in collusion with some of their greedy spouses, simply want to sell to the highest bidder.
But there is much more to this story than just questions of inheritance and divergent generational values. Just as with Thomas Vinterberg's Danish breakthrough film The Celebration (Festen), with which The Sea shares some thematic similarities despite being based on material written several years earlier, the family gathering over dinner provides the perfect occasion to rattle many of the sinister skeletons that lurk in their dark closets. Repressed desires and sexual under-currents bubble up to the surface, past revelations are aired, and this self-centred, tart-tongued family disintegrates into a violent conflagration.
It is worth remembering here that Vinterberg's own film hardly set the international box office alight despite the universal acclaim that accompanied his debut. But that film at least boasted empathetic characters with whom we could identify with as his powerful drama and social indictment unfolded to an unnerving degree. As consummately acted and well-made as his own incendiary family drama might be, Baltasar is ultimately let down by the absence of anyone we can truly care of or can relate to. Even the presence of French actress Helena De Fougerolles, whose arrival from Paris as the pregnant girlfriend of the youngest son, fails to give us an outsider's view on all the histrionics since her character is not nearly as indelibly etched as the rogue's gallery around her. In fact, once the turbulence has finally subsided, we are left wondering why she would ever want to maintain any familial ties.
Prod cos: Blueeyes Productions/Emotion Pictures/Filmhuset Produksjoner
Icelandic dist: Haskolabio
US/UK dist: Palm Pictures
Int'l sales: Flach Pyramide International
Prods: Kormakur, Jean-Francois Fonlupt
Co-prod: Egil Odegard
Scr: Kormakur, Olafur Haukur Simonarson, based on the play by Simonarson
Cinematography: Jean-Louis Vialard
Ed: Valdis Oskarsdottir
Music: Jon Asgeirsson
Main cast: Gunnar Eyjolfsson, Kristbjorg Kjeld, Hilmir Snær Gudnason, Herdis Thorvaldsdottir, Gudrun Gisladottir, Helena De Fougerolles, Sven Nordin, Elva Osk Olafsdottir, Sigurdur Skulason, Nina Dogg Filippusdottir