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Paris of the North

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París Norðursins / Iceland / 2014 / dir. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson / 98 mins / drama / starring Helgi Björnsson, Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir & Björn Thors

Screened as part of the Chicago International Film Festival 2014

Some audiences may have gotten a taste of director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s work without realizing it. Either Way, Sigurðsson’s first film, was remade by David Gordon Green in 2013 as Prince Avalanche. Like that film, Paris of the North is a small, universal story about relationships between men with opposing personalities. But unlike that film, “Paris of the North” lacks any identifying quirks that would allow its barely-there plot to hold your focus.

After a bad break-up, Hugi (Björn Thors) is keeping things together, but just barely. He teaches young students in his tiny Icelandic town by day and attends three-person AA meetings by night. All that’s shaken up by a visit from his alcoholic father (Helgi Björnsson, also seen this year in Of Horses and Men) – an arrangement Hugi agrees upon in order to stand up to his father and declare his independence. But in between his father’s incessant flirting with the locals and drinking pallets of beer, he’s not sure if the message will ever get through.

In addition to the central father-son pairing, Sigurðsson explores the ways that Hugi has become both a father and a son to other residents in his village. Huldar Breiðfjörð wrote the script, and handles the characters with a heavy helping of subtlety. At first, this modesty is a pleasant relief. Hugi’s father’s reputation precedes him, so when he finally arrives it’s a nice surprise to find he isn’t a larger-than-life drunken “character,” but one struggling with realistic, undeniable flaws.

As the film goes on, though, the modesty and subtlety becomes a bit much. This is a 98-minute film that feels much longer. There’s always some sense of satisfaction in absorbing a very human story, but a bit more comedy wouldn’t have hurt. Despite the upbeat rock music (composed by Icelandic artist Prins Polo) and a few attempts at approaching comedic relief, Paris of the North is, mostly, even-toned and pleasant. Hugi is a character struggling with boredom in a town too small to have fun in, and he passes those banal frustrations on to us. For a lead character, he’s easy to watch but tough to connect to. Sigurðsson meandered in Either Way and it worked because it reflected the characters’ lives as lone highway repairmen, but here a tighter dramatic through-line feels necessary and is disappointingly absent. Despite using a different writer, it feels like Sigurðsson attempted to play it safe by making a very similar film, but the material is begging for a more lively treatment.

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