Reykjavík on Screen: Exploring downtown Reykjavík with Baltasar Kormákur’s 101 Reykjavík

With the growth of Icelandic tourism industry in recent years, the image of Iceland changed considerably. What only a few decades ago was seen from the outside as a small and isolated peripheral country mostly dependant on its fishing industry, today is one of the most exclusive tourist destinations widely known for its beautiful nature and vast landscapes, as well as for the bustling art and cultural life of its small capital.

From a rather unremarkable town, Reykjavík soon gained a reputation of a quirky cosmopolitan capital with vibrant nightlife and rich independent music scene, which is especially noteworthy considering its population of only 120 000, its isolated geographical position and challenging climate. City’s efforts to establish its new identity began a few decades ago, and Reykjavík’s cultural production played an important part in that process. When it comes to film industry, the film that left the biggest mark in defining Reykjavík’s new image is Baltasar Kormákur’s directional debut 101 Reykjavík (2000), an off-beat comedy based on Hallgrímur Helgason’s popular novel of the same name published in 1996.

101 is the postal code of downtown Reykjavík, the city’s oldest part and a creative melting pot of various local artists. It is also the centre of Reykjavík’s nightlife, with most of the city’s popular clubs and bars situated on the main street or the adjacent ones. At first glance, it is hard to picture downtown Reykjavík as a site of vibrant nightlife – its low-rise, colourful houses, narrow streets and even a peaceful lake in the middle of the town make it look more like a small village than a bustling capital. But it is its compact structure with everything within walking distance and its small village atmosphere where everybody seems to know each other what makes Reykjavík what it is today.

A rather untypical debut for Kormákur, if we consider his later work which mostly consists of high budget thrillers, this small indie comedy follows Hlynur (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), a 30-something slacker with no ambition in life who lives in a cramped apartment with his mother Berglind (Hanna María Karlsdóttir) in downtown Reykjavík, survives on unemployment benefits because he is too lazy to work, sleeps during the day and parties during the night. The life of our anti-hero changes when his mother’s Spanish friend and flamenco teacher Lola (Victoria Abril) comes to visit. After that, the plot gets sort of an Almodovarian twist, which doesn’t come as a surprise considering the overall aesthetics of the film, as well as the casting of Victoria Abril, who is probably best known to the international audience for her performances in several Pedro Almodovar’s films. Because of all that, some critics at first even dubbed Kormákur “Almodovar on ice”[1], although it is clear now that his later career took a very different turn.

The film presents downtown Reykjavík as a lively place full of parties. Hlynur rarely leaves the 101 area, as he finds everything outside downtown extremely boring. While going to Christmas family dinner in the suburbs of the city, he refers to it as the countryside and says he always gets depressed when going there. He prefers to spend his days either at home or in the local bar Kaffibarinn, which he calls his other home. Kaffibarinn has long been a synonym for Reykjavík’s nightlife, and the international success of Kormákur’s film additionally established its popularity, especially among tourists.

Although most of the film takes place indoors, the city itself plays the key role in the film. Throughout the film, Kormákur effectively uses contrasts between the warm interiors and cold exteriors to emphasize the welcoming atmosphere of the interiors – the dark and desolated wintery streets of Reykjavík are juxtaposed with crowded and lively colourful interiors. Kaffibarinn is always packed with people, most of whom know each other, and when Hlynur introduces us to it in the voiceover at the beginning of the film he describes it as “so crowded and noisy you don’t even need to talk or dance”. The apartment where Hlynur lives is cramped with knickknacks – the walls are packed with photographs and pictures, there are colourful lamps on the table, stuffed animals on the radiator, books piled up under the table, curtains in various lively colours. The upper bunk bed in his room is used as a storage area, where we can see everything from clothes, ice skates to an old pc monitor piled up on top of each other. At one point in the film, Hlynur visits Kolaportið, famous indoor flee market in Reykjavík, where mise-en-scène is quite similar – the area is packed with people and selling stands with various colourful gimcracks.

101 Reykjavík is a charming take on the slacker culture and an amusing introduction to downtown Reykjavík and its nightlife, filled with humour and local peculiarities. Although popular with the local audience as well, the film was mostly intended for foreign market, and was actually one of the first Icelandic films to get international distribution. Since the time the film was released in 2000, Reykjavík changed considerably. While in the early 2000s the city was still trying to establish its image and attract tourists, it now has the problem of too many tourists, which is changing the city’s dynamics, and some even fear that because of the recent tourism boom the 101 area is losing its authenticity and becoming a ghost town and a theme park for tourists[2].


  • Jez Conolly, Caroline Whelan (ed.) (2012) “World Film Locations: Reykjavík”
  • Nordfjörd, B. (2010) “Dagur Kári’s Noi the Albino”, p. 66-70

[1] http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/baltasar-Kormákur-returning-iceland-oath-926795

[2] https://grapevine.is/mag/feature/2017/08/25/welcome-to-theme-park-101-impossible-prices-citizen-flight-and-the-audacity-of-hope/