One problem with the Nordic Council Film Prize is that the five Scandinavian countries do not have the same filmmaking traditions. To illustrate that, let’s use Academy Award nominations: Both Iceland and Finland have been nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film exactly once. At the other end,
Ingmar Bergman alone has been nominated for that Oscar three times, and won every time, while Denmark has received four nominations in the last ten years. Not surprisingly, the prize hasn’t been given to each country equally, with five going to Denmark and four to Sweden, and only one, the first one in 2002 given to Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without a Past, going to a director from another country. At least until this year. But looking down over the list of nominations, they are filled with famous Danes and Swedes like Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg (the only one to have won the prize twice) Lukas Moodysson and Roy Andersson, while most of the Icelandic and Finnish directors are somewhat less known. Many years, it’s not too hard to guess which film will win, as one film will have gotten much more prestige than the others– for instance, my money is on Roy Andersson’s Golden Lion winner A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence to grab the 2015 prize. Again this year, the Danish and Swedish nominees got more attention than the rest, both ending up being nominated for Best Film at European Film Awards. But all five nominees were very strong, with no film leaping ahead of the pack on quality alone.
To start with the ‘worst’ of the five films, Pirjo Honkasalo’s Concrete Night is visually and aurally absolutely stunning, but fails to fully connect. Shot in stark black and white halfway between Eastern European art film and Sin City, with a multifaceted sound track of city-noises and classical music, the world of the film is a masterful creation. 14-year old Simo (Johannes Brotherus) dreams of train crashes and drowning, lives in a flat with his mother and elder brother, and looks out the window at feathers flying about and the ‘creepy’ homosexual living in the opposite building. His wanderings bring him to Orthodox churches, dingy bars and alleys, and fog-filled forests, all given a dreamlike quality by the way it’s filmed. The cinematography alone is very much worth the price of admission. The problem is, though, that the film is not about the amazing world that it creates, but specifically about how the 14 year old at the center is formed and sculpted by this weird world around him. This means that for every stunning shot of the Helsinki skyline seen from afar, or the lights of a carnival at night, there seems to be a shot of the face of young Simo, while he observes, considers, takes it all in. It becomes a bit boring, and Simo himself is hurt by this, as he is by design a blank slate waiting to be filled in by his surroundings, and therefore is not a very interesting character in himself. Also, this is way to much weight to be put on the shoulders of a young actor like Brotherus, and unfortunately he is not at all up to the task. He is not particularly bad, but the role calls for him to be a screen on which everything else in the film could play out, and, like most other actors his age I’d guess, he can’t do it. The other actors, like Jari Virman as the cool elder brother Ilkka, who is going to jail for a drug-related crime, or Juhan Ulfsak as the mysterious homosexual neighbour, merely need to be prototypes that Simo can contemplate and consider, and they are great at that, having the kind of faces that are immediately striking. They are one with the world, as striking as the sandboxes or the luminous jellyfish. But Simo is meant to stand apart, and as he fails to uphold interest, a hole develops at the center of the film, which unfortunately holds the film back from reaching it’s full potential. It is still a very beautiful and interesting film, though.
Secondly, we have the Norwegian nominee, Eskil Vogt’s Blind [pictured]. Norway has been nominated for the Foreign Language Academy Award five times, and has quite a thriving industry. However, it hasn’t really had those big-name directors, like a Roy Andersson or a Nicholas Winding Refn, to name two that weren’t nominated this year. This might be changing, though. Specifically, Joachim Trier has caused quite a stir internationally with his films Reprise and Oslo 31. August, both former nominees for this prize. Eskil Vogt was the scriptwriter on those two films, but Blind is his debut feature. A witty examination of a women named Ingrid dealing with a sudden onset of blindness, the film definitely shares a lot with a film like Oslo 31 August. As with that film, this is a portrait of a person feeling apart from society, and also like the earlier film, this one includes a few essay-like portions, where Ingrid explains what is like being blind. She’s also writing a story of three lonely people, one of whom is her husband, which allows the film to touch on such subjects as porn addiction – in a segment which might be more explicit than any part of Nymphomaniac – and the increase in distrust towards lonely men after Utøya.
It also allows the film to do an assortment of visual tricks, as Ingrid will change her mind about details of the story, meaning a scene will change between being at a coffee place or on public transport at a moments notice, confusing the poor characters. I was probably rooting for this film, which has the typical flaws of being a debut feature, but feels incredibly fresh. It’s not really the best of the five nominees, but I also thought it had the best change of breaking the Danish/Swedish stranglehold on the prize. Well, shows what I know.
Moving on to that stranglehold, Ruben Östlund received his third nomination for Nordic Council Prize this year, more than any of the other nominees. And yet, he somehow still feels like an up-and-coming filmmaker.
Perhaps it’s because he is still establishing himself on the world stage. Play from 2012 got some attention, but not that much compared to Force Majeure, winner of the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, and recipient of many glowing reviews in USA when it was released over there. Force Majeure feels like an arrival. Ruben Östlund is a master of using and exposing the geometry of modern life, something also seen in the shopping-malls and train carriages of Play, but the fancy hotel in Force Majeure is almost certainly the most surreal he’s ever gotten. The comparison between the endless snowy expanses and the well-dressed Swedes on tiny lifts moving in straight lines says almost everything. The weirdness of the complex system creating controlled avalanches to clear the pistes. The family even has a drone for a toy. Like Play, the plot revolts around unfamiliar elements intruding on the lives of the Swedish middle class. In Play it was immigrant children, in Force Majeure it’s nature itself, in the form of a controlled avalanche, which causes the father Tomas to panic and flee, leaving his wife and family behind. Nature has revealed the unmanly nature of Tomas, and the rest of the film deals with the repercussions of this reveal. The film is milder than Play and much funnier. Tomas and his friend Mats, who left his wife behind and now goes on vacation with a much younger girlfriend, are somewhat pathetic, but mostly harmless. In some ways, it seems less brave than Play,more easily palatable. Perhaps that was why Östlund didn’t win his second Council Prize in three years. There can be no doubt, though, that Force Majeure cemented Östlund’s position as Sweden’s most interesting young(ish) director. He might be the best in Scandinavia at filming architecture.
And then there is Lars von Trier and his Nymphomaniac. What more is needed to say at this point? This film might have been the international art-house sensation of the year, what with the genius marketing, and the endless supply of new versions constantly keeping it in the public eye. At this point Lars von Trier is firmly entrenched among the most well known non-English-speaking director in the world. It is insane how much attention has been given to what should by all means be the least commercial thing Trier has ever done. 5½ hours in the Director’s Cut – which was also the one I’ve watched – with so many callbacks to Triers own career that it could very well be seen as a meta-movie about himself, and, of course, filled with more explicit sex than most porn-films. And an argument could be made that it’s the best thing Trier has done since The Kingdom back in the mid-nineties. The long version of this film is unlike almost any film ever made. Basically the story of a single long conversation between a nymphomaniac named Joe and an old virgin named Seligman, the film is paced so uniquely, with digressions upon digressions ever shoving aside what little narrative momentum the film ever builds up, creating a feeling more like reading an old novel than watching a normal 2-hour movie. Fly-fishing, the differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxism, what kind of knot to make to hang somebody, the glory of Bach’s use of counterpoint. That last one is crucial. The whole film is woven like a fugue, with themes, motives, genres and characters travelling in and out of the story seemingly at will. Whatever the many quite logical misgivings one can have about Lars von Trier, it’s hard to deny this wasn’t the magnum opus of Scandinavian cinema in 2014, just in grandiosity alone. However, the prize jury only considered the four-hour version, which I’m told didn’t include some essential scenes, and had a much more conventional pace. And anyway, a film so flawed and divisive was never a sure-thing winner anyway. And so, the prize went to a very surprising winner: Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men.
The slimmest and slightest of the films in the competition, it is basically a rumination on the relationship between the stout Icelandic man and his horse. I’ll admit I didn’t expect much of the film, as I don’t care much about horse-riding, but I’d forgotten about a crucial detail. Those Icelandic horses are famously diminutive in stature. And the sight of a proud middle-aged Icelandic man on a small Icelandic horse never ever stops being funny throughout the films run-time. The opening scene is especially glorious, with a middle-aged man dressing up in his finest horse riding outfit to visit the woman he has a crush on. The shots of him on his trotting white horse with the mountains in the background is simply perfect cinema: Lines, movement, landscape and scale all adding up to a concise statement on Icelandic manliness. I won’t spoil the punch-line to that scene, though since it’s on the poster, it should not be hard to figure out. The film never tops this glorious scene, but it contains enough variations on the theme – horse in water, horse in snow, several horses in a row – to hold interest throughout the film. It’s quite morbid, probably even a bit feminist. And whenever a film can say this much, be so funny, with so little dialogue, it’s always worth sitting up and taking notice.
I would never have guessed Of Horses and Men would win the prize, and honestly, it was probably only my fourth favorite of the five films. But in some ways that makes its win even more fitting for this great year of Scandinavian Cinema: Only the fourth best of the nominees, but still a completely deserving winner. And a debut feature, even, pointing perhaps to an even better future. All in all, this year the Nordic Council Film Prize did exactly what it should: Showcased the diversity, energy and stunningly high quality of the best of Scandinavian filmmaking in the past year.
Of Horses and Men is available on DVD on Amazon.co.uk and shopicelandic.com