Bad taste and death - just right for an Icelandic comedy

Iceland's tiny film industry is on a roll. Could it be because the world is developing a taste for the nation's dark sense of humour? Adrian Turpin talks to director Baltasar Kormákur
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The Independent Culture

You can't help feeling that Icelanders must be a bit fed up with Björk. Undoubtedly, her profile abroad popularises the arts of her native country - but it also risks eclipsing those who are less successful than her. And now, as Iceland's film industry tries to punch above its weight on the world stage, here she is again, dividing audiences at the Cannes and Edinburgh film festivals with her extraordinary performance in Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark. Her music videos have also been the subject of a retrospective this year in Edinburgh. However, when you see a first feature as distinctive as Baltasar Kormákur's 101 Reykjavik, it's evident that Icelandic cinema has more to offer than a single pop star turned actress.

You can't help feeling that Icelanders must be a bit fed up with Björk. Undoubtedly, her profile abroad popularises the arts of her native country - but it also risks eclipsing those who are less successful than her. And now, as Iceland's film industry tries to punch above its weight on the world stage, here she is again, dividing audiences at the Cannes and Edinburgh film festivals with her extraordinary performance in Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark. Her music videos have also been the subject of a retrospective this year in Edinburgh. However, when you see a first feature as distinctive as Baltasar Kormákur's 101 Reykjavik, it's evident that Icelandic cinema has more to offer than a single pop star turned actress.

The tale of Hlynur, a 30-year-old slacker who accidentally sleeps with his mother's female lover, 101 Reykjavik doesn't flirt with bad taste: it grabs it by the head and shoves its tongue down its throat. Pedro Almodóvar regular Victoria Abril coquettishly dominates the screen as Lola, the lesbian flamenco dancer from Spain who comes between mother and son. And the action is driven on relentlessly by a pacy score from Einar Orn Benediktsson of The Sugarcubes and Blur's Damon Albarn (who co-owns a bar in the Icelandic capital with the director and turned up last week in Edinburgh to publicise the film).

"This is what you call the X generation," Kormákur says. "It's a comedy but it's realistic. For a part of the population in Iceland, this is a documentary." The small-town life it depicts is one of weekend binge drinking and one-night stands. If it weren't for the all-enveloping snows and the presence of a nearby glacier, it could be set in America's rust-belt or England's industrial north. But what really distinguishes it is the blackness of its comedy.

Do all Icelanders have such a dark sense of humour? "Yes, I think in real life, even more than in the books and the movies. You find it in the old Icelandic literature. In the Sagas, there is a story of a killer being punished: they take his - what do you call them? - intestines and tie them to the mast of a ship then they walk him round until he is dead. That's humour.

"My friends, the people around me, make fun of everything. Everything is allowed: disabled, homosexual, immigrants, everyone. And I think that's fair, you know. I think if you're not allowed to make fun of black people or immigrants, then that's discrimination."

Provocative talk, but it would be wrong to see Kormákur as Iceland's answer to Bernard Manning. His own father was an immigrant, fleeing from the fascist rule of Franco's Spain to work on an Icelandic fishing trawler. "That was a rare thing in those days, whereas nowadays people come to Iceland from all over the world."

Referring to the gentle teasing of an immigrant in the film, he suddenly sounds worried. "I hope people don't misunderstand. It shouldn't be racist". As for homosexuals, well, it should be noted that it's Lola - both a lesbian and an immigrant - who finally stirs the movie's anti-hero Hlynur from his studied nihilism.

101 Reykjavik has been compared to David O Russell's Spanking the Monkey and the Farrelly Brothers' There's Something about Mary, but its sexual entanglements are more reminiscent of Almodóvar. And, as in Almodóvar's films, hearts of gold are to be found among the hedonists. There's even a happy ending of sorts.

If 101 Reykjavik does do well internationally - and, so far, 34 film festivals have been clamouring for it - it won't be the first Icelandic feature to do so. The most famous name in Icelandic cinema (and we're not counting Björk here) is Fridrik Thór Fridriksson, one of the group of directors who put their names to the original Dogme 95 manifesto, alongside Lars von Trier.

Fridriksson's surreal and very funny road movie Cold Fever, the story of a Japanese salaryman on a pilgrimage to his parents' graves in the north of Iceland, was a cult hit in 1994, and got a welcome showing on Channel 4 earlier this year. A later comedy, Devil's Island, about three generations of Icelanders living in a shanty town outside Reykjavik in the years after the Second World War, played well on the arthouse circuit, while this year his Angels of the Universe is doing the festivals, including Edinburgh.

"I learnt a huge amount about directing by acting in Fridrik's films," says Kormákur. "Other film-makers have affected me more in my taste, like Emir Kusturica and Milos Forman. But I adore his work. Fridrik has kept the film business going in Iceland. And now it's blooming. I think we're making seven or eight features a year, which is a lot for a country of 270,000 people."

The industry is tiny, but it is growing in confidence. In May, the country opened its first film stage, with another one to follow. The French city of La Rochelle held an Icelandic retrospective in June this year and there's even a Hollywood Icelandic Film Festival. What's more, the annual Reykjavik Short Film Festival, previously a homegrown affair, is calling itself International for the first time this year. That sounds like a statement of intent, and a welcome one, too.

'101 Reykjavik' is showing at 9.30pm tomorrow at the Cameo, Home St, Edinburgh, as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival

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