“Paris of the North” is a small but appealing, character-driven dramedy about emotionally handicapped men, featuring several father-son relationships that humorously model various styles of manhood and schools of parenting. Like Icelandic director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson’s first feature, “Either Way” (remade Stateside as “Prince Avalanche” by David Gordon Green), the film is rooted in a droll script whose many universal elements offer significant remake potential, played out against a harshly beautiful landscape and featuring two main characters forced into shared isolation. Further fest travel is assured.
The action takes place over a summer in northwest Iceland, in a rundown fishing village so claustrophobically tiny (pop. 150), that sometimes situations become a bit too intimate. Take, for example, the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings attended by the protagonist, Hugi (Bjorn Thors, a tad too sour). The only other people in the group are Svanur (Sigurdur Skulason), the father of Erna (Nanna Kristin Magnusdottir), the woman Hugi has just broken up with; and Richard (Jon Pall Eyjolfsson), Erna’s former partner and the father of her serious-minded, soccer-playing 10-year-old son, Albert (Haki Lorenzen), with whom Hugi has a quasi-paternal relationship.
Hugi is a primary-school teacher who has come to this secluded town from Reykjavik hoping to heal from the wounds of his broken marriage, and to hide from the trials and tribulations of city life. Here he can pass his summer holidays jogging, attending AA meetings and taking Portuguese lessons online. But even though he doesn’t initially realize it, Hugi is carting around a lot of invisible baggage, including the torch he still carries for his ex-wife, something that prevents him from becoming too close to Erna.
Eventually, Hugi’s estranged, hard-drinking father, Thorfinnur (charming actor-rocker Helgi Bjornsson), fresh from a stint as a bar owner in Thailand, insists on coming for a visit. Hugi tries to insist on certain boundaries and conditions, but these fail to offer protection against the charismatic older man’s intrusive, manipulative ways. Much to Hugi’s dismay, Thorfinnur and Erna start to become close, to the point where young Albert earnestly asks Hugi if he thinks they will become brothers. Clearly, in order for Hugi to retain his sanity and sobriety, either he or Thorfinnur will have to leave this Paris of the north.
Although working this time from a script by Huldar Breidfjord (who penned his short “Rattlesnakes”), Sigurdsson makes the material his own in a way that often seems derivative of his first film without showing much in the way of progress. This, however, is a quibble that will be apparent only to those who have seen “Either Way.” Stylistically, the director once again favors long takes, wide frames and moving shots that allow the thesping to carry the story. He also uses composition and editing to aptly convey how slowly time passes in this out-of-the-way location.
Among the richly etched supporting characters, Skulason deserves particular praise as the empathetic Svanur, who makes the language of 12-step programs sound like words of wisdom from his heart. Also fine is young Lorenzen as Albert, whose fraught relationship with his father captures Hugi’s sympathy.
Standouts in the attractive craft package are the gorgeous visuals shot by G. Magni Agustsson, which capture the rural majesty of the location, and a sometimes melancholy, sometimes upbeat score from Prins Polo, the alter ego of Svavar Petur Eysteinsson, frontman of the Icelandic band Skakkamanage.