Comic goings-on and dramatic crises, as well as a coming-of-age story, a quasi-feminist argument and a critique of class snobbery, are all melded in an exotic setting in this Icelandic-German co-production by writer-director Agust Gudmundsson. Such an eclectic melange of elements wouldn’t seem to have much chance of success, but in the event “The Seagull’s Laughter” proves an uncommonly engaging tale of tradition, change and growth in a strangely haunting locale.
The title of the picture, a period piece set in Iceland in the early 1950s, seems a modern response to Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” In that famous play, the failed writer Konstantin thinks of a plot for a story in which a happy young woman, free as a seagull, is wantonly destroyed by a man; and the action itself reflects a dismissive treatment of women by men. But here the protagonist–a strong-willed, seductive widow named Freya (after the Norse goddess of love)–is more like a female character from Euripides or Ibsen: she deals harshly with males who wrong her or other women, in the process fostering a kind of grim female solidarity that comes to include her young, initially antagonistic cousin Agga, from whose perspective the story is seen. It’s no wonder this seagull laughs.
Freya (Margret Vilhjalmsdottir) shows up in her home village in Iceland after having gone off with an American serviceman some years before. Returning from California with suitcases full of clothes after her young husband has died of an untimely heart attack (or so she says), she moves into the already crowded house of her elderly aunt and uncle. The old man is almost always off on his fishing boat, but his wife heads a large extended family, all female: the couple’s two unmarried daughters (one of them mentally slow), her elder unmarried sister-in-law, and their granddaughter, Agga (Ugla Egilsdottir). The older women are all excited to welcome Freya back, but Agga is hostile, since the new arrival forces a change in accommodations and is strange and self-centered to boot, and the girl immediately approaches Magnus (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason), the local policeman, about her dislike of the woman, only to be ridiculed by him. It isn’t long before Freya has dealt with the abusive husband of her friend Disa. She also targets a wealthy engineer and former lover, Bjorn Theodor (Heino Ferch), as her next conquest, despite the fact that he’s engaged to the mayor’s daughter; and curiously enough Agga becomes the instrument by which the two are brought together, carrying letters from one to the other that she herself encourages them to write (and sometimes alters during transit); and a wedding soon follows. The marriage is hardly a happy one, however. Freya and her mother-in-law, a class-conscious old biddy who lives with the newlyweds, despise one another, and when Theodor begins fooling around with his old girlfriend, Freya furiously leaves his house and returns to her uncle’s. Eventually the wayward husband shows up drunk to drag her back home, but he winds up dead in what all the women, save Agga, call an accident. But by the close, when Magnus finally begins to take the girl’s allegations seriously, even she sees the value of women sticking together.
There’s an odd combination of Scandinavian tradition and Hollywood pizzazz in “The Seagull’s Laughter.” On the one hand, the picture is like an ancient saga starring a Norse warrior of the Brunnhilde stripe. (Freya goes wandering in the craggy cliffs near the seashore, places which are believed to be home to supernatural forces.) But on the other, Freya is also a typical femme fatale of film noir, an elegant black widow to whom men are unwisely attracted. At one point the two sides of Freya–the mythic and the pulpy–are brought together in a scene from a local production of a play about the Ice Princess, a sort of fairy queen who deceives and controls a human prince. The mixture of the mythic and the hard-boiled doesn’t jell perfectly, nor does the film’s habit of combining melodrama and humor, sometimes–as in the case of Agga’s intrusive mail delivery–of a quite lighthearted sort (though elsewhere the jokes are much darker). But its stylishness carries the film over most of the rough spots. Tonie Jan Zetterstrom’s production design and Orunn Maria Jonsdottir’s costumes capture the period beautifully, and Peter Joachim Krause’s atmospheric widescreen photography makes the most of the unusual locations. There’s also a great soundtrack that features a raft of big-band songs from the forties and fifties. And the cast is excellent. Vilhjalmsdottir vamps it up spectacularly as the manipulative Freya, and Egilsdorttir realizes Agga’s transformation from bratty eleven-year old to a girl on the verge of womanhood very skillfully indeed. The supporting players are all tuned in to the picture’s blend of dramatic and comic overstatement.
Perhaps “The Seagull’s Laughter” tries to do too much. But that’s certainly preferable to a film that attempts very little. And if Gudmundsson may have cast his net awfully wide, the catch he offers is abundant enough to be quite enjoyable.