Imagine an Almodovar comedy played out in the snowy wastes of a grungy Icelandic ‘hood and you’re still only halfway to “101 Reykjavik,” a funny, touching, off-the-wall relationer that’s one the freshest helming debuts in world cinema this year. One of the popular and critical hits of the Locarno fest, but scandalously overlooked by the competition jury, this small gem could have a small but robust arthouse career in the hands of the right distribs and signals one more successful career transition for actor-legit director Baltasar Kormakur. Pic has already done well on local release this summer.
Though based on a local bestseller, Kormakur only took the basic idea of the 400-page novel, discarding huge chunks of the narrative and even changing the nationality of one of the main characters. First to go, per director, were page after page describing the main hero’s sexual fantasies and his onanistic obsessions.
Set in a downmarket section of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, that never makes it into the guide books (“101” is the area’s zip), pic centers on Hlynur (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason), a 28-year-old slacker. Hlynur still lives with his divorced mom, Berglind (Hanna Maria Karlsdottir), who helps him bathe and even buys his underwear.
Hlynur has life sussed, living off state unemployment money, loafing around at home during the day, and boozing and chasing girls by night. He has an on-off relationship with beautiful blonde Hofi (Thrudur Vilhjalmdottir), who just about tolerates his ambitionless behavior.
Enter the flashing-eyed Lola Milagros (Victoria Abril), a Spanish friend of his mother who comes to stay at their house and teaches flamenco to the natives at a dance school. Hlynur falls for her bigtime, despite the fact she’s an unabashed lesbian, and, during a drunken New Year’s Eve when his mom is away visiting relatives, the two somehow end up having wild sex and almost wrecking the house.
After this leisurely but quirky start, which thoroughly paints the ambit in which Hlynur lives, and the non-lives of him and his circle, pic springs the first of its surprises and clicks into gear. Mom returns home and calmly tells her son that she’s in love with Lola. As Hlynur opines in one of his mordantly funny voiceovers: “Me and my mother have our fingers in the same pie.”
Worse than that, there’s also a bun in the oven. Lola announces she’s pregnant, and that she and Berglind have decided to bring the child up together. It’s also pretty clear who the child’s father is — so Hlynur is to get a brother who’s also his son.
And that’s not all. Hofi has previously told Hlynur that she’s also pregnant by him and intends to have the child. It’s all a bit too much for our hero, who finds himself suddenly drowning in adult responsibilities and with no one to turn to — his divorced father is a hopeless alcoholic.
Though sexually frank in a very natural way, pic is much more than just a study of an offbeat menage-a-trois. Played out with extremely dry, typically Icelandic humor, and taking a bitingly funny view of the island’s inhabitants, the movie ends up a rather touching story of familial love wrapped inside an adult coming-of-ager. Hlynur’s life sorts itself out despite him, with the women in his immediate world just getting on with things in the most natural of ways.
Uncommonly for a pic helmed by an actor, perfs are fully drawn but held in check by careful direction that is always visually acute and detailed. Even the one major technical flourish — an elaborate crane shot which eyes Hlynur as he enters and exits a building where he has a contretemps with Hofi — is at the service of the drama.
The central locale of drab housing and bars, where “even the ghosts are bored” and people live “only because they were born here,” is affectionately caught in Peter Steuger’s lensing, far from the touristy landscapes of other Icelandic pics.
The mature but still striking Abril is perfectly cast as the Hispanic fireball, acting up a storm at times but also dovetailing well, when required, with Karlsdottir’s quiet and eminently sensible Berglind. (In the novel, Abril’s role was actually a woman from the north of Iceland, but the half-Catalan Kormakur changed her nationality to striking effect.)
Gudnason is also fine as the loafing Hlynur, handling his English dialogue with Abril with humorous skill.
Music is a strong component throughout. The alternately funky/funny soundtrack by Blur lead singer Damon Albarn and ex-Sugarcubes band member Einar Orn Benediktsson adds atmosphere and momentum, with cheeky use of the stereo surround tracks.