Movie Review: The chill of an Icelandic summer hangs over “The Swan”

 

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A troubled child finds her life’s purpose, if not necessarily solace, spending the summer on a relative’s farm in “The Swan,” a disquieting coming-of-age drama from Iceland.

Icelandic filmmaker Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir uses images, melancholy reveries and the voice-over narration of her nine year old protagonist to turn Guðbergur Bergsson’s novel into an austere, chilly and cryptic film set in the treeless farm country of northern Iceland. 

Sól (Gríma Valsdóttir) is standoffish, stuck inside her own head, the kind of kid the other kids call “weird.” She also shoplifts and lies and that’s what prompts her parents to send her to live with her aunt and uncle up there.

“You’ll feel better about yourself,” she is assured (in Icelandic, with English subtitles). Feeding the chickens, helping with the cows and horses, taking hikes in the valley, along the streams that lead to the sea, sounds like “the cure,” right?

But there’s something brittle about this family, troubling about the dynamic at work here. The odd moment of warmth aside, these folks are all about practicality, not nurturing.

And the fact that the couple (Katla M. Þorgeirsdóttir, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) park the young girl in the same bedroom as the 20something farmhand Jón will raise eyebrows, if not in Iceland, in North American theaters where this plays.

Jón (Thor Kristjansson) has been coming here for seven summers, laboring by day, writing by night. It’s his annual writer’s retreat.

Jón is friendly to Sól, even as he’s stuck babysitting and informally given the task of explaining this new world to her — not so much the farm, but human personalities and relationships.

“People are always in character,” he says. And lying, making up stories? There are worse sins. Writers are all liars, he assures her. Sól’s voice-over narration suggests she’s taking this to heart, even as we fret over the crush she’s developed on the man.

It is the abrupt return of prodigal daughter Ásta that upsets this uneasy idyll. She (Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir) is mercurial, beautiful, big-city-blunt and upset. She broke up with her boyfriend, fled college and isn’t happy about it.

And she has history with Jón, smarting off about his unpublished “great book,” sassing her parents at dinner about their “medieval ways,” complaining about the cooking.

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One minute she’s nice to the kid, not the first one who’s shown up to spend the summer there over the years, the next she’s scaring her with the legend of the “monster” swan that lives on a remote lake in the mountains nearby.

The performances are uniformly sharp, with young Valsdóttir impressively understated when the moment calls for it, and wrenchingly overwrought when confronted by the harsh realities of farm life (animal slaughter) and human relationships. “Troubled” Sól becomes “sensitive” right before our eyes. 

Writer-director Hjörleifsdóttir labors to get across her points without words, and having Jón quote a line from an Andrei Tarkovsky (“The Mirror,” “Solaris”) film tells us what she’s going for.

The obvious thing is that this girl, stealing Jón’s journals, absorbing experiences that can seem like body blows, is destined to write. “We the Animals,” another new indie release, covers that ground more lyrically and more overtly.

The less obvious points every viewer can make up her or his own mind about.

There are other films about a child’s eye view of troubled lovers, feckless affairs of adults. “We the Animals,” for starters. But the one “Swan” brought to mind for me was “The Go-Between,” filmed in 1971 (a classic) and again in 2015, about a boy misused as the messenger/enabler for an illicit affair. It’s famously cryptic and inventive in its flashback and flash-forward narrative.

“The Swan” lacks the coherence of those challenging films, and one suspects that this makes complete sense only in the American-film schooled filmmaker’s head.

But it’s still a darkly poetic, beautifully scenic and in a couple of instances, haunting film that will stick with you even as you’re sorting it out.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, adult situations, nudity, animal slaughter, alcohol abuse, smoking

Cast: Gríma Valsdóttir, Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir, Thor Kristjansson

Credits: Written and directed by  Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir, based on a Guðbergur Bergsson novel. A Synergetic release.

Running time: 1:31

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