Dir. Agust Gudmunsson. Iceland 2001. 104 mins.

The new offering from veteran Icelandic director Agust Gudmunsson initially posits itself as a post-war coming-of-age social satire. Yet this acerbic comedy soon offers up several lively portraits of women looking to assert themselves in a world very much controlled by men. Based on the novel by Kristin Marja Baldursdottir - indeed, only a woman could have written this story - it will easily find its own niche in special distribution circuits, especially with female audiences. In particular, the performance from 11-year-old Ugla Eggilsdottir - took the best actress prize this week at Karlovy Vary - should prove a crowd-pleaser for those seeking out his type of story. In Iceland, where the film opened last October, it swept the board at the national film awards.

Young widow Freya (Margret Vilhjalmsdottir) returns to Iceland from the US, where she went to live with her new husband, an American officer stationed in her homeland during World War Two. With no place of her own, she moves back in to the family house in a small fishing village outside Reykjavik. But the home is already overpopulated by six other women, who keeping the homefires burning while the head of the family is away at sea for most of the year.

Strikingly handsome - and conscious of it - Freya dolls herself up in all the latest cheap American fashions, intending to use her assets to get ahead in the world and escape her new social confines. While the local men prove to be putty in her hands, the female leaders of the local bourgeoisie are much more resilient - but Freya finally gets her own way, with the unexpected assistance of her family. And no man, neither the loud-mouthed drunk beating up her friend nor the arrogant heir of the village manor, stand much of a chance against her wiles.

The tale is told through the eyes of Freya's cousin, 11-year-old Agga (Ugla Eggilsdottir), a sharp-tongued, inquisitive brat, who is evidently envious of the statuesque newcomer and suspects her of the worst possible crimes.

Gudmunsson sustains a light bantering tone throughout the narrative between the characters. At the same time are also a few dark undertones, including two violent deaths, whose perpetrator young Agga is eager to reveal, but to which the sympathetic village policeman prefers to turn a deaf ear. The male characters are mostly played out as one-dimensional character sketches who are predictably manipulated by the women they pretend to control. Meanwhile all the attention is lavished on their female counterparts, several generations of who represent different takes on the right way to treat life and the men it brings.

Vilhjalmsdottir, a kind of raw Nicole Kidman, is just right for the part of the strong-willed Freya, who may be not only a femme fatale but also a witch or an evil spirit, considering her occasionally strange conduct. Egilsdottir, who bears a resemblance to the young Christina Ricci offers a pert, witty performance as Agga, combining all the sweetness and nasty precociousness of the part, that shows why she fully deserved her festival acting distinction.

Prod co/int'l sales: Isfilm
Prod: Kristin Atladottir
Scr: Agust Gudmunsson, based on novel by Kristin Marja Baldursdottir
Cinematography: Peter Joachim Krause
Ed: Henrik Moll
Prod des: Tonie Zetterstrom
Cast: Margret Vilhjalmsdottir, Ugla Egilsdottir, Heino Ferch, Hilmir Snaer Gudnason, Kristbjorg Kjeld, Edda Bjorg Eyolfsdottir, Gulaug Elisabet Olafsdottir