Dagur Kári’s “Nói”; Icelandic Eccentries in a Washed-Out World
by Peter Brunette
“Nói” is the Icelandic entry, following the recent Swedish film “Kitchen Stories,” in the genre of droll Nordic tragicomedy that has lately been populating film festivals around the world. The reliance on sight gags and eccentric characters is present once again, but this time a Holden Caulfield-esque misunderstood teenaged hero is added to the mix. It won’t surprise you to discover that Nói, our protagonist, has a drunk for a father, or that he’s at least partially saved by a fetching young woman, but it may come as a shock that he’s an albino. As such, he fits right in to the dominant setting of the film, which is snow, snow, and more snow. Everything in this ice-locked fjord is washed-out and colorness, as though starved of life itself, and one of the principal things that rescues ” Nói” (previously known as “Nói Albinói”) from being another run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story is first-time director Dagur Kári‘s offbeat decision to include his main character (played by Tomas Lemarquis) in the film’s production design. The very sight of his shaved, ultra-white head sets up tremors throughout the film that substitute powerfully for what would have been superfluous dialogue.
The cast of eccentric subsidiary characters, if expected — one wonders whether Scandinavians are really like this or whether Scandi directors have learned to indulge stereotypes for easy humor, popularity, and international portability — is always entertaining and generally put in the context of fresh situations. There’s the grandma who fires a shotgun out the window to wake up the slug-a-bed Nói and, my favorite, the bookstore/videostore owner who sports a T-shirt that reads “New York Fucking City.” (When he reads in a book written by dyspeptic Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that “you will regret it if you hang yourself and you will regret it if you don’t hang yourself,” he tosses it into a wastebasket.) A fireman reads fortunes in Nói’s tea-leaves and a Frenchman makes mayonnaise in Nói’s French class in the high school he rarely attends. Late in the film, when Nói has — very symbolically! — been forced to take a job digging graves in the frozen tundra of the local cemetery, he’s directed in his work by a priest with a walkie-talkie who’s observing him through binoculars from a warm shelter.
Of course, as always in these movies, Nói is actually a genius (as Kári informs us by having him correctly align a Rubik’s Cube while a psychologist is quizzing him about how frequently he masturbates), but when Nói goes so far as to have a friend tape-record classes so he won’t have to waste his time, he’s expelled from school. Salvation appears in the person of the disaffected big-city daughter of the bookstore owner, leading to the most hauntingly powerful scene in the film, which is more than a little reminiscent of the planetarium scene in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Wandering around a closed museum, practicing first attempts at kissing, the couple comes upon a backlit map of the world. They fantasize about where they want to go and while they connect with Hawaii, significantly there is no button to press to light up Iceland as the starting-place. As Nói puts it, on the map “Iceland looks like spit.”
All takes place under the threatening eye of a brooding mountain, which becomes an important motif that heavily but bracingly punctuates the film from beginning to end. Vignettes in which little seems to happen pile up, eventually creating a devastating portrait of life in this climatically and emotionally frozen place. The film is at its best when it combines, in a number of intense scenes (for example, when the frustrated ne’er-do-well father takes an axe to his piano), both laughter and tears. Kári unfortunately felt that he had to ramp up his ending with a catastrophic event that raises the metaphysical stakes, certainly, but is at base more confusing than enlightening and coherent with the rest of the film. It is one of those art-film moments that seem more cinematically and thematically powerful than they really are.
What’s clear, though, is that Kári has a wonderful eye and, most importantly, knows how to inject feeling into his laconic, stunted figures. This is promising. His next film, in other words, is going to be (even) better.