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'Paris of the North' ('Paris Nordursins'): Karlovy Vary Review

Paris of the North Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Karlovy Vary Film Festival

The Bottom Line

A contemplative comedy-drama from Iceland.

Venue

Karlovy Vary Film Festival (Competition)

Cast

Bjorn Thors, Helgi Bjornsson, Nanna Kristin Magnusdottir

Director

Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson

The second feature from Icelandic director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, whose "Either Way" was remade as "Prince Avalanche" by David Gordon Green, stars Bjorn Thors ("The Deep").

KARLOVY VARY – A recovering alcoholic in a godforsaken village on the west coast of Iceland has to face his responsibilities and troubles when his beer-chugging father unexpectedly turns up in Paris of the North (Paris Nordursins), the second feature from Icelandic filmmaker Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson.

Like in his successful debut feature, Either Way, which was recently remade by David Gordon Green as Prince Avalanche with Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, Sigurdsson again explores the male psyche through the prism of an uneasy friendship, though since the protagonists here are father and son, the overall dynamic is sufficiently different even if, stylistically, the two comedy-drama hybrids are clearly cut from the same cloth. A festival tour is guaranteed for this Karlovy Vary world premiere, though another remake might be a bit more complicated, since the tone of the film is less overtly comic or dramatic, instead opting for a more contemplative register, even if the eclectic score occasionally accelerates the film's otherwise leisurely tempo.

Thirty-seven year-old Hugi (Bjorn Thors) is a schoolteacher, but the former fishing village where he lives and works is so tiny that he’s only got seven pupils to teach. As a former alcoholic, he’s probably content with the way his professional commitments structure his life, but as the film starts, it’s the last day of school and Hugi seems at a loss when his favorite student, Albert (Haki Lorenzen), asks him what his plans are for the summer.

In another sign of just how tiny the community is, the local AA meetings are attended by just three men: Hugi, the middle-aged Svanur (Sigurdur Skulason) and Hugi's friend, Richard (Jon Pall Eyjolfsson), though they’ll see a whopping 33-percent increase in attendance when Hugi forces his own beer-loving father, Veigar (actor-rocker Helgi Bjornsson), to attend when he suddenly shows up from an extended period in Thailand and the walls of Hugi’s booze-free pad rapidly start to disappear behind mountains of beer cans.

"Let’s start counterclockwise," suggests Svanur, who leads the three-person AA meetings and who generally seems able to advise Hugi better than Richard. It’s a good example of the very dry wit that permeates the film, though audiences familiar with Nordic black comedies might be surprised by how understated or subtle most of the more comedic material of Sigurdsson and screenwriter Huldar Breidfjord (who also wrote the director’s short, Rattlesnakes) is.

Indeed, this is first and foremost a story about men trying to come to terms with their own lives at their own pace, which in rural Iceland doesn’t seem to be all that quick, with the director, cinematographer G. Magni Agustsson and editor Kristjan Lodmfjord opting to let everything play out in long, static shots that often frame the characters against the imposing coastal landscapes.

The acting is thus vital to draw viewers in and thankfully Thors, recently seen in Baltasar Kormakur’s Oscar-shortlisted The Deep, is a terrifically charismatic performer even if his character is obviously somewhat adrift. Whether nervously jogging away all his pent-up energy and anger on the road alongside the depressingly drab few buildings of the village; engaging in an online language course with the faint hope of reconnecting with his ex-girlfriend, who has moved to Portugal, or trying to recover from his most recent relationship disaster with the local swimming pool worker, Erna (Nanna Kristin Magnusdottir), Thors is always convincing.

If a single word would have to describe the film, it would be balance, as this portrayal of Hugi and the men in his orbit quietly but precisely observes their hard-to-kick habits but also the characters’ innate positive traits, such as Hugi’s warm relationship with 10-year-old Albert, who's stuck in a town where he’s the only kid interested in playing soccer — a serious problem for a wannabe goalie. “You’ll make a fine father one day,” one of the characters observes about Hugi, which is about as hopeful as it gets out there in this remote fishing village, where even in summer there’s little sun.

Production companies: Kjartansson, Zik Zak Filmworks, Arizona Films, Profile Pictures

Cast: Bjorn Thors, Helgi Bjornsson, Nanna Kristin Magnusdottir, Haki Lorenzen, Jon Pall Eyjolfsson, Sigurdur Skulason

Director: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson

Screenwriter: Huldar Breidfjord

Producers: Sindri Pall Kjartansson, Thor Sigurjonsson

Co-producers: Skuli Fr Malmquist, Ditte Milsted, Jacob Jarek, Guillaume de Seille, Tobias Munthe

Director of photography: G. Magni Agustsson

Production designer: Halfdan Pedersen

Costume designer: Margret Einarsdottir, Eva Vala Gudjonsdottir

Editor: Kristjan Lodmfjord

Composer: Prins Polo

Sales: Pascale Ramonda

No rating, 95 minutes