Starring: Richard García, Raúl Portero, Nacho San José, Eugenio Sanz
Directors: Raúl Portero, Richard García
There’s something about Iceland. Containing bleak and dramatic landscapes of some of the most northerly habitable spots in the world, the country is a nodule of violent geology that has led to spectacular mountains, waterfalls and plateaux, linked by a conveniently well-surfaced ring-road direct from Reykjavik. It’s easy to see how this accessible desolation has led to its becoming one of the hottest tourist destinations of this century, so it’s hardly surprising that Spanish filmmakers Raúl Portero and Richard García fell in love with it enough to want to make their film about the aftermath of a relationship breakdown here.
Bruno (García) has broken up with his boyfriend Norberto. They broke up in Madrid, but immediately after, Norberto travelled to Iceland in an attempt to flee the emotional fallout. Bruno follows him soon after, enlisting the help of Arnau (Portero), a Spanish émigré working as a tour-guide, to find him. Together, they travel the length and breadth of Iceland, following the clues as to his whereabouts along the way, leading them to the remote island of Grímsey.
Having been to Iceland as a tourist myself, I recognised fully the tourist experience captured here. The long nights, the woolly jumpers and the feeling of complete isolation from the rest of the world, Bruno stands often in far-flung wild spots, staring far off into the distance, the camera poised over his shoulder to show us the bleak majesty of the world he is seeing. Norberto has travelled here because it is, essentially, the final frontier of civilisation before the wilderness of the north. And, of course, the island of Grímsey is as far north as is possible to go, 40 kilometres north of the northern coast, straddling the Arctic Circle. There is something so desperately inhospitable about Iceland’s terrain that it makes a visitor feel extra-terrestrial; that somehow they have stumbled onto another planet. The directors have aimed to capture this atmosphere from the very beginning of the film, but it seems somehow too… obvious.
Iceland is depicted as a wilderness resort. Sure, we see the houses of people who supposedly live there, but we never actually meet a person who inhabits the island. Even when they stop to stay in a small town, the people they encounter are coincidentally Spanish gay expats. Any conversations with Icelanders happen off screen, making the country feel completely unpopulated by anyone but nomadic travellers who want to escape their lives at home. It ends up feeling more like a theme park than a country, with woolly jumpers the essential souvenir. Even Bruno’s guide isn’t even Icelandic. Just like American films about Paris, this is an outsider’s perception of the country, containing precisely nothing of the essence of the island’s culture. Even the music is markedly Latin, ignoring the rich modern Icelandic musical traditions.
Bruno’s voyage of self-discovery is one of self-punishment. It’s a millennial 'Pilgrim’s Progress' across a hostile land. Postcard flashbacks of the other places they visited together serve to reinforce their nomadic image, but the rootless nature of their relationship serves only to underline that they are perpetual tourists, whose logical reaction to emotional pain is to choose a melodramatic destination and run away. And what could be more melodramatic than an icy volcanic rock in the middle of the North Atlantic. His whiny voicemails left for Norberto become increasingly laden with naval-fixated psycho-babble, which exists to try and give us a commentary alongside those infuriatingly frequent lingering brooding looks into the extreme distance.
There is a scene in which Bruno and Arnau disapprovingly observe a couple who, despite their location far north, are texting their friends and taking selfies to send to them. The implication is that somehow their experience of the island is less authentic than theirs, but really they appear to at least have a shred of sanity and connection to the outside world, just as Iceland itself has. It’s not Svalbard or South Georgia.
Grímsey serves as a fantastic advert for Iceland, feeling a little like it had been commissioned by its tourist board to appeal directly to brow-beating gay men to come and discover themselves post-breakup in the wilds of the frozen north. However, with a story revolving around an over-earnest and under-appealing protagonist whose restrained misery fails to be enigmatic and serves only to be pretty damn irritating, the film would probably have been a lot more interesting if there had been no characters in it whatsoever, leaving us with swooping vistas that capture exactly the same locations as Sigur Rós’ Heima did, but with a considerably better soundtrack.
OUT NOW ON DVD AND ON DEMAND.