Baltasar Kormakur’s “The Sea”; An Icelandic Family’s Breakdown, Handled With a Velvet Touch
by Patrick Z. McGavin
indieWIRE reviewed “The Sea” at Sundance 2003; The Palm Pictures release is now playing in New York and L.A.
With his bruising, effective chamber drama “The Sea,” the gifted Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur works in a wholly different emotional and physical form from the silken sexual politics that enlivened his “101 Reykjavik.” This potent, acute work (which Palm Pictures will release in the U.S. this spring) draws on disparate sources — including, Chekov, “King Lear,” and the films of John Ford — filtering and shaping the material in a precise, observant manner that underlines the cruelty and misery families inflict on each other.
The movie is as elemental as the title suggests. Kormakur and his cinematographer, Jean-Louis Vialard, brilliantly utilize the widescreen frame to conjure a terrifying physical setting, an isolated coastal village in Iceland dominated by physically ravishing landscapes and bleakly claustrophobic weather. It is both beautiful and suffocating, and the movie plays off that dichotomy emotionally as well. The story’s Oedipal conflicts and emotional disruptions produce an intensity of feeling and a complex interlay of mood, anger, and anguish.
Kormakur worked on the script with Olafur Haukur Simonarson, based on the latter’s play. Structurally, the beginning flashes forward to a cataclysmic event and moves back in time. The movie is about the past superimposed on the present, laying siege to wounded feelings, scorched emotions, and raw anger. Thordur Haraldsson (Gunnar Eyjolfsson), the village’s most socially prominent businessman, has summoned his three children home to discuss the future of the family’s fishing operations. In a sly reversal of “Hamlet,” the old man married the sister of his dead wife years before, an act that heightened the family discord and unleashed a host of withering accusations.
Agust (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason), an aesthete with little interest in running the business, arrives from Paris with his beautiful pregnant French girlfriend, Francoise (Helene de Fougerolles, of “Va savoir”). Her appearance unsettles Agust’s cousin, Maria (Nina Dogg Filippusdottir), an inveterate thrill seeker tortured by her complicated feelings about Agust. Haraldur (Sigurdur Skulason), Agust’s brother is a weak, pathetic man humiliated by his wife (Elva Osk Olafsdottir) and scorned by his children. He manages the fish processing plant and is conspiring with an amoral associate to take over the plant by selling the government sanctioned quotas to larger industrial concerns. Ragnheidur (Gudrun S. Gisladottir, of Tarkovsky’s “The Sacrifice”), a vindictive control freak, turns up with her husband and sullen teenage son.
At the dinner, Thordur announces his disgust at the manner his children have squandered the family estate and vows to cut them off if they attempt to circumvent his will that leaves the processing plant in control of the community. Up to this point, Kormakur has maintained a fragile peace, introducing enough details about the characters’ shared desperation and malfeasance to conjure a palpable unease.
This is a lot to absorb, and in lesser hands, it could easily yield to hysteria and breakdown. Fortunately, the director has a pretty velvety touch, and the movie establishes an authentic emotional register without turning mannered or oppressive. The characters are almost uniformly miserable, ugly, manipulative, though Kormakur does not render any editorial or value judgments. The movie’s style is a blatant contradiction, a surreal naturalism, an intense, grimy world of irrational behavior and craven acts that carry horrifying consequences. The devastating incident that foreshadowed at the start is preceded by a long, drunken night of vile, destructive actions. Kormakur surveys the wreckage and finds a small sliver of hope amid the carnage. It is not an easy film, though it is memorable and complete.