Notes from CPH PIX: Sumarlandið/Summerland (Grímur Hákonarson, Iceland, 2010)

Summerland is not the only Icelandic picture that I have seen – but I must admit that I have not seen many, and certainly not all of the recent ‘landmark’ Icelandic movies that have come out since 2000.

(Think 101 Reykjavík (Baltasar Kormákur, Iceland/Denmark/France/Norway/Germany, 2000), Nói albínói/Noi the Albino (Dagur Kári, Iceland/Germany/UK/Denmark, 2003), and Beowulf & Grendel (Sturla Gunnarsson, Canada/UK/Iceland/USA/Australia, 2005) and you have more or less my complete knowledge of Icelandic cinema.)

The film is a comedy – perhaps in the vein of Aki Kaurismäki, if to revert to comparisons with Finns is not too condescending or ‘obvious’ a step to take – about a family who live in Kópavogur, about which I know nothing, but who try to run a local tourism business. This they do by stealing visitors from the ‘official’ tour of the vicinity and taking them to their ghost house, where pater familias Óskar (Kjartan Guðjónsson) tries to scare visitors. Mother Lára (Ólafía Hrönn Jónsdóttir) is also in the ghost business – but as a (seemingly) genuine medium, who talks to the dead, or those who live in the titular Summerland, as a result of the energy that is channeled through the local elf stones, in which live Iceland’s long lost but historical elven ancestors.

However, because the family home is threatened with repossession as a result of debts, Óskar sells the elf stone in the family garden to a German art dealer (Wolfgang Müller) – and even though he makes a tidy 50,000 euro from the sale, everything proceeds to go wrong from here: Lára falls into a coma, their daughter starts a relationship with a local anti-spiritual campaigner, their son loses his best friend (because, or so the son thinks, the best friend is or was an elf), and the town decides that it is going to sell off other elf stones in order to save the local economy.

However, Óskar sees the error of his ways and although he does not get back the money for the elf stone that he sold from his garden, he does stop the town’s larger elf stones from being sold by placing himself between the digger that will extract them and the stones themselves. Hailed as a martyr, a sense of community is restored and the town itself becomes something of a tourist destination, Óskar’s ghost house in particular, meaning that, in theory, everything is well in the world.

There are two differences between this film and the others mentioned above – or at least there are two differences that I want here to discuss. Firstly, this is the first film that I have seen since Iceland went bust in 2008. And secondly, this is the first Icelandic film that I have seen that is not an international co-production.

The reason for mentioning the first is hopefully self-evident: this is a film that deals with Iceland selling off its traditional assets as a result of being too international-minded in the pursuit of both profit and, perhaps more tellingly, ‘survival.’ In an Iceland that denies its history, signalled here by a belief in the spirit world – the land in the past where it always was summer and Icelanders were happy – and by the fact that both Óskar and the town in general want to sell the elf stones, the message of the film seems strongly to be: hold on to what is truly Icelandic, because it is only in this way that we will be able happily or in a satisfactory manner to ‘compete’ internationally. In fact, it is by embracing its past that Iceland emerges as a viable tourist destination – and not by becoming a bland destination that has the same things as everywhere else (Kópavogur is home to Iceland’s largest shopping mall, not that it features in Summerland).

Secondly, the fact that this is not a co-production suggests more or less a similar thing, but on a filmic level. Rather than trying to make a Europudding featuring (with all due respect) famous stars like Victoria Abril (Reykjavik 101) or Gerard Butler (Beowulf & Grendel), Summerland is a ‘uniquely’ Icelandic film – and perhaps it benefits all the more from being so. For it is potentially a downside of the international co-production that it becomes obsessed with markets: who does it please from where, how can it make money in various territories, et cetera. Instead, Summerland arguably just does what it wants to, and in the course of this it sticks (proverbially speaking if not literally) two fingers up at the rest of Europe, here signified through the presence of the (problematically) gay German art collector (and his lover).

Given that Summerland is a comedy (albeit one that is – and I hate this term when applied to comedy – ‘bittersweet’), and given that – or so the cliché goes – comedy does not travel, then Summerland is a ‘risk.’ But then again, if the packed house at the cool Husets Biograf is anything to go by, comedy does travel (we could mythologise this about some sort of interest in ‘Scandinavian’ cinema), and, indeed, the more ‘Icelandic’ the film is, the better it fares. For what – paradoxically – sells better (than comedy) is a sense of making a film that one cares about as opposed to making a film that is intended to satisfy certain so-called needs in certain markets.

(I hope that Afterimages, my film showing at CPH PIX, is taken in this way – even though it is not ostensibly a comedy.)

Now, the above is more or less all that I have to say superficially about the film – but it is of course more complex than the above words can convey. Óskar and family got into debt for trying to do something ‘authentic,’ or at the very least independent and different in Iceland. Had they played safe, they might not have got into debt at all. Furthermore, Óskar does sell off his elf stone and does ease his financial worries through doing so – regardless of the subsequent romantic consequences of this act.

In other words, interpreting the film ‘economically’/as an allegory of recent economic history (which is my doing and therefore my mistake, if mistake it is) is not necessarily an easy task. The economic crisis is caused by localism, while globalisation can and does bring financial rewards, even if at the expense of ‘culture’ (here, elves).

Sure, following a sacrifice of the pater familias, Iceland can re-emerge as both economically viable and as ‘Icelandic,’ but then it seems that the very terms of economic imprisonment are the same as the terms of escape. In other words, there is no clear or easy history to the Icelandic economic crisis, and certainly no clear or easy solution, even if at first blush Summerland seems to suggest as much.

Furthermore, the film also requires the removal of the patriarch (who never really was that empowered?) for this to happen. That is, the cause of all of the problem – the guy that sold his country out – is also the route towards greater economic well-being. I have nowhere specific to go with this analysis, but I find it interesting nonetheless.

Either way, as has happened already a couple of times – and as should become clear from subsequent blogs – Summerland was not a film that I had intended to see here. In fact, I was hoping to see Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2010), but missed it because I stupidly got wrong the time of the film’s start.

But this is also one of the incidental pleasures of festivals as I understand them: having missed or simply not being able to attend the higher profile stuff can, if one is determined and can afford to see a/any film anyway, one always ends up seeing something of great interest and warmth. I am sad I missed Meek’s, although I am sure I’ll catch it at some point before too long.

But in hindsight, I am happier for having seen Summerland, not least because of the fantastic atmosphere engendered by the full house at the Husets Biograf (there is so much to write about what being in the cinema with a warm crowd can do to one’s response to a film, as opposed to the solipsistic practice of watching films on DVD on one’s laptop). I am also happier for having seen Summerland because in all likelihood I will be able to see Meek’s Cutoff before too long anyway (it had just started playing in London before I came out to Copenhagen).

In some respects, this sounds like the ‘festival twat,’ who can namedrop films that no one else has seen, nor will they likely get the chance to see, except indeed on DVD at home, where the experience might be all the more disappointing by virtue of the viewing circumstances (being with people is always better, or so say I).

But in another respect, I hold by it: I don’t normally get the chance to see films like Summerland, and I might not normally take up such a chance when I do get it (not least because I wanted to see the Reichardt film ahead of it). But, be it by hook or by crook, I have seen it – and this is what going to the cinema in general, and festivals in particular, is all about, or the experience that for me is the most pleasurable.

That is, the less I know about a film in advance, the more fun I have. I don’t know if others feel the same way, but in certain respects I sometimes wonder that it would not be great simply to have films showing – and one gets what one receives, without having to ask for a particular thing in advance. Bring on the days where promotion and publicity count for nothing…

Afterthought (which I meant to include in the main blog, but forgot about): Summerland‘s presence at film festivals, including CPH PIX, might make of the film’s story something like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe not many, but some people will see the film, and – be it consciously or otherwise – somewhere in their line of reasoning it will play a part in deciding them to go to Iceland, be it for a full-on holiday or for a weekend break. Other scholars study set jetting in more detail than I do, but an independent Icelandic film plays a part in helping the Icelandic community to recover, both economically and culturally, by functioning as a film that plays abroad and as a film that might inspire tourism. In other words, although the ‘recourse’ to an Icelandic as opposed to European co-production might seem to reinvigour nationalistic sentiments, paradoxically its ‘meaning’ is always already ‘global’ as soon as the film circulates beyond the boundaries of its home nation. Again, I’ve not much to add to this, but it is an interesting and almost contradictory process nonetheless.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
This entry was posted in CPH PIX 2011, Icelandic cinema, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Notes from CPH PIX: Sumarlandið/Summerland (Grímur Hákonarson, Iceland, 2010)

  1. Not to be picky, since this is a couple of years old, “Snorri Engilbertsson” is the gentleman who befriends Oskar’s daughter. You can tell the sex with Icelandic names — the last name ends in “-son” for a male (“son of Englbert” in the name above), in “-dottir” for a woman.

    • wjrcbrown says:

      Good stuff – yes, silly me – how unthinkingly silly, not least because I would otherwise claim to know this. Many thanks for the correction, which I shall implement when I get the chance…

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