Scandinavian Comedies: Who Knew?

Scandinavian Comedies: Who Knew? featured image

White Night Wedding Baltasur Kormakur, dir & co-script w/Olafur Eglisson. Starring: Hilmir Snaer Gudnason (Jon), Margret Vilhjamlsdottir (Anna), Laufey Eliasdottir (Dora), Olafur Darri Olafsson (Sjonni)

O’ Horten Bent Hamer, dir. & script. Starring: Bard Owe (Odd Horten), Ghita Norby, Espen Skjonberg, Henny Moan.

One of the great things about the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is the opportunity to make your own connections and create double bills or whole evening programmed to your own taste. You can travel around the world, sampling films from Latin America, Africa and Asia over one afternoon and evening. Or you can explore great filmmakers, centering your programmatic day around works by auteurs like Mike Leigh, Agnes Varda and the Dardenne Brothers.

Just for fun—and because both films are quirky and enjoyable—let’s take in a couple of Scandinavian comedies at TIFF. Now, I’m sure you’re going to ask: comedies from where? The land of brooding blondes whose gaze seems to drift towards the Arctic skies seeking redemption and philosophical release? So goes the stereotype, aided by the plays of Ibsen, the paintings of Munch and the cinema of Bergman.

Few remember that two of Ingmar Bergman’s early international hits, Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries, were comedies. Or that the compositions of Grieg and Sibelius are actually quite lovely.

Overcoming preconceived notions is one of the bonuses when one attends films at TIFF. The realities of life in countries around the world come into focus as do the obsessions of their creative class. Which brings us—finally!—to our modern Nordic pairing.

White Night Wedding is set in Flatey, a tiny island in the north west of Iceland. In the summer, the days are endless—white nights abound—and in the winter, you’re lucky to get 8 hours of sunshine. There’s one bar, which serves jugs of beer to the locals and white wine to the tourists who travel there to soak up folkloric culture. Lacking much money—the island is a fishing community—the denizens of Flatey are happy to sing folksongs to the wealthy tourists as the “white nights” go on—particularly the bar’s owner, who wanted to be an opera singer before settling into a more mundane path.

Now, the barman and his wife have a feisty and beautiful daughter named Dora, who went to university in Reykjavik. When her favourite professor, Jon, comes to the island with his mentally disturbed wife Anna in tow, it’s clear that sparks will fly.

And they do. Anna seeks refuge in her art and the local preacher and tries to seduce Jon back into her arms. The much younger Dora—no artist but willful and strong-minded—also sets about seducing the unhappy but handsome professor. Who will win? Sad to say: do the math.

When a distraught Anna takes her own life, Jon falls quickly into Dora’s plans (and arms), much to the chagrin of her parents, who are his age. Jon brings his best friend, the charming and overweight pianist Sjonni to play at the wedding—and he fits into the village island life better than his friend.

Wait a minute! You’re thinking: brooding professor, dead wife, angry parents, complex and guilty preacher. This is a comedy?

Well, um, yes it is. The storyline is fractured so that you only get bits and pieces of the narrative instead of the “straight” rendering delivered here. That allows the wonderful acting, physical comedy and strange characters to dominate the rather sad scenario.

You’ll be happy to know that Dora is no fool. This twenty something knows herself and her “teacher man” better than he knows himself. She wants him and gets him! Is it sad: sometimes. Inspired by Chekhov? Of course. Funny? You’re not laughing out loud—unless you’re Icelandic. But are you amused by the very human comedy of life that unfolds on the screen? Yes. White Night Weddings is a classic festival flick. Go and see the film that may sweep the Eddas (Icelandic Oscars—thank you Wikipedia!) next year.

O’ Horten is only funny if you love eccentrics. Were you raised in a family that had a crazy Uncle Oswald who built model airplanes? Or an Aunt Edna who believed that she could communicate with Oswald, after the old gentleman died, through a Ouija Board?

Even if you didn’t, weren’t you always secretly hoping that a mad relative might emerge one day?

If so, go and see O’ Horten. Yes, I know that “Odd” is a name in Norwegian, but director-scripter Bent Hamer knows English—he made the brilliant post-Beatnik Charles Bukowski feature Factotum recently—and surely realized that naming his titular character Odd Horten was going to have a certain resonance in the international film circuit.

Hamer’s film focuses on Horten, a 60 something railroad engineer, who is forced into retirement. He may worry about a banal future as a pensioner, but life provides many surprises for Horten. The phlegmatic retiree finds himself echoing the sounds of train noises with fellow engineers at a sending—off party, then misses his final train trip the next day.

Free and clear, Horten meets odd characters and finds old friends. All are, well, “odd” but mildly nice. An episodic film like this one often features a great sub-plot or scene. Here, we follow Horten as he meets a drunken collector of bric-a-brac who insists on driving the old engineer in a car—blindfolded.

Hamer, whose previous films include Kitchen Stories and Eggs, is a quirky deadpan talent. O’Horten won’t be remade in English with Seth Rogan. Isn’t that a good thing?

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