XL: Karlovy Vary Review
Stylish but shallow character study of an Icelandic politician addicted to alcohol, sex and debauchery.
KARLOVY VARY -- Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, according to a celebrated Henry Kissinger quote, a thesis that this darkly comic Icelandic drama appears to endorse. The anti-hero is a high-ranking politician with designs on running the country. He is also a heavy-duty alcoholic, a drug user, a neglectful father and a borderline sex criminal with a harem of beautiful but damaged girlfriends. He might be a bear-like slob with a waistline as big as his ego, but his devilish charms and political connections still open a lot of doors.
Sundance veteran Marteinn Thorsson expanded his third feature from a 2011 short starring the same leading man, Olafur Darri Olafsson. Both films are essentially one man shows, so it helps that Olafsson is an extremely engaging performer, with enough clownish but vaguely menacing charisma to convince as the bowtie-wearing Bad Lieutenant of Nordic politics. The non-linear narrative is less persuasive, its chaotic energy ultimately providing inadequate cover for thin dramatic substance. Showing in the official competition at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this week, XL has sufficient visual razzle-dazzle and lurid subject matter to secure further festival bookings, but lacks a strong narrative hook to grab overseas distribution.
Much of the action is viewed through the bleary eyes of Olafsson’s perpetually drunk anti-hero, Leif, complete with booze-blurred focus and intermittent blackouts. After too many mornings waking up naked in his trashed apartment with the hangover from Hell, Leif is ordered into rehab by his boss, the Prime Minister (Thorstein Bachmann). Fearing he is being politically sidelined, Leif instead hatches a blackmail plot before throwing himself into another round of boozy sex parties with his bondage-loving lawyer Kristina (Nanna Kristin Magnusdottir), his long-suffering young girlfriend Aesa (Maria Birta Bjarnadottir) and assorted drug buddies from the seedy Reykjavik demi-monde.
Featuring an incongruously sweet soundtrack of local Icelandic folk-pop stars, XL blasts along with a vivid, colorful, crazy-paving mania that works well for the first 40 minutes. But the constant excess-all-areas hedonism eventually becomes repetitive, with too many dramatic threads left unresolved, from Leif’s complex relationship with his estranged teenage daughter Anna (Tanja Bjork Omarsdottir) to an ugly scene in which he drunkenly rapes Aesa to assert his mastery over her. Oddly, Thorsson moves on from this bleak incident without comment. Like most of the dark events in this story, it lacks weight and bite, feeling more like a lurid music video than a serious drama.
Disappointingly, despite Iceland’s ongoing financial crisis and the government-toppling anger it generated, Thorsson also misses a golden chance to make this film a timely critique of his country’s disgraced political and financial elite. Maybe there is subtle subtext at work here, but it gets lost in an orgiastic riot of full-frontal nudity, vodka, cocaine and kinky sex. Filthy good fun at first, XL is ultimately a boorish party animal, too busy snorting lines to read between them.
Production company: Tenderlee Motion Pictures Company
Producers: Marteinn Thorsson, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Ragnheidur Erlingsdottir, Gudmundur Oskarsson
Director: Marteinn Thorsson
Starring: Olafur Darri Olafsson, Maria Birta Bjarnadottir, Nanna Kristin Magnusdottir
Writers: Olafur Darri Olafsson, Gudmundur Oskarsson
Cinematographer: Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson
Editors: Stefania Thors, Sigurdur Eythorsson, Marteinn Thorsson, Valdis Oskardottir
Music: Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Samaris
Sales agent: Tenderlee Motion Pictures Company