starring Gunnar Eyjólfsson, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Hélène de Fougerolles, Kristbjörg Kjeld
screenplay by Baltasar Kormákur, based on the play by Olafur Haukur Símonarson
directed by Baltasar Kormákur
by Walter Chaw A family melodrama that's a little like Chekhov but a lot more like Telemundo, Baltasar Kormákur's The Sea (Hafið) takes the bare bones of "King Lear" and fashions from them the sort of bleeding hair-render that runs roughshod through the Altman/Bergman canon without the benefit of genius. Its use of foreground, of mannered close-ups and overlapping dialogue, of old men journaling their lives at the end of their lives, all feel at odds with the film's weightless, familiar tale of an old man shackled to the ideal of a better era in opposition with subsequent generations of useless, snivelling bastard children trying to feed off the corpse of said better era, the irony of that Icelandic tradition including a sort of culturally institutionalized rape (the contention of which I find to be not merely shockingly reductive, but deeply suspect besides) mentioned but left unexamined for the most part. The problems of The Sea aren't restricted to this reliance on reckless ascriptions of cultural archetype for irony or poignancy (an Ayn Rand-ian predilection for staging hypothetical, unwinnable arguments in their extreme), extending to issues as problematic as a script (adapted from a Olafur Haukur Símonarson play by Kormákur, a sometime-actor who appeared as the mad scientist in Hal Hartley's No Such Thing) that is as repetitive in regards to dialogue as to scenario.
An old guard assembly-line industrialist in an age of automation, Thordur (Gunnar Eyjólfsson), already one stroke down, decides to gather his worthless kids together for one last miserable reunion at the family reserve (a modern-looking house set down in the middle of nowhere Iceland) so he can, presumably, pass his antiquated fishery on to his useless pianist son Agust (Hilmir Snær Guðnason). Complicating matters, middle son Haraldur (Sigurður Skúlason), married to tramped-up shrew Aslaug (Elva Ósk Ólafsdóttir), already runs the fishery in his mild, embezzling sort of way; cousin Maria (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir) wants to revisit her incestual relationship with Agust, thus getting between he and his pregnant French girlfriend Françoise (Hélène de Fougerolles); and uncle-dad Thordur and his new wife (his dead wife's sister), Kristen (Kristbjörg Kjeld), brood over some deep dark secret that is neither deep nor dark (nor secret) for anyone outside of the fictional clan. Boring and hysterical already, the picture takes a turn for the worse in an endless subplot about insurance that even a mildly funny cane-beating can't cure.
The Sea uses the sea as a metaphor--and the weather, and drinking, and just so the metaphors don't pass without notice (impossible, really, in a film of limited audience and appeal), Kormákur offers an old crone (Herdís Þorvaldsdóttir) as simultaneous footnote, Greek Chorus, and geriatric comic relief. Would that tiresome symbolism were the end of it, but The Sea moves from unsubtle pretension to bombast: a bar fight, a forklift destruction of a police car (policeman still inside), an explosion, abovementioned funny cane-beating, and enough heatless monologues to bore Victor Hugo. There seems to be some thought now and again to bemoan cultural diffusion and the loss of tradition to the encroaching tide of time and America, but The Sea is really just an ugly melodrama, a burlesque family freakshow that aspires for the mythic, then the epic, and failing both, it settles for blowing things up real good. The picture has the low of Shakespeare down cold, then--it's all the other stuff that needs a little work. Originally published: July 10, 2003.