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A small story about a very large man, Virgin Mountain marks a return to his native tongue for the young Icelandic writer-director Dagur Kári following his 2009 English-language debut The Golden Heart. That film was marred by a seam of cloying sentimentality, where compassion shades into condescension. That same weakness also has a mildly corrosive effect on this otherwise charmingly offbeat rom-com, which is ultimately more com than rom.
Kári also runs the director’s program at the Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen, but the heart-warming tone and deadpan humor of this Danish-Icelandic co-production should appeal beyond his two Nordic homelands. Screening as a special gala in Berlin this week, further festival interest is likely to follow, and niche distribution possible given Icelandic cinema’s respectable worldwide reputation. Virgin Mountain is also produced by one of Iceland’s best-known cinematic exports, Hollywood action director Baltasar Kormákur, which may help boost its modest commercial prospects.
Ever since Ernest Borgnine starred in Delbert Mann‘s quadruple Oscar-winner Marty back in 1955, cinema has been in love with socially awkward, emotionally stunted male misfits looking for love. Fúsi (Gunnar Jónsson) is just the latest and most extreme, an overgrown man-child trapped in the super-sized body of 43-year-old social outcast. Still living with his quietly despairing mother, Fúsi has very few friends and only infantile hobbies, chiefly playing with toy cars and recreating World War II battles in miniature.
Fúsi works as an airport baggage handler, where bullying colleagues goad him about his weight, his appearance and his total invisibility to women. Even when he befriends an adorable eight-year-old girl (Franziska Una Dagsdóttir) who moves into the next apartment, Fúsi falls under cruel suspicion as a potential child molester. Battered by decades of rejection and low self-esteem, he is painfully shy, and still a virgin.
Pressured by his mother and her boyfriend into exploring new social avenues, Fúsi grudgingly agrees to attend line-dancing classes, where he meets fellow lost soul Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir). An eccentric garbage worker with fantasies of running her own flower shop, Sjöfn soon takes a shine to her new dance partner, slowly teasing him out of his protective shell with the life-changing promise of sex and romance. But of course, love never goes that smoothly, even in a sweet little fairy story like this. Beneath her bubbly surface, Sjöfn proves to be almost as damaged as Fúsi.
Kári conceived Virgin Mountain as a vehicle for Jónsson, who made his name as a TV comedian in Iceland. He is an unlikely leading man, but extremely watchable, his hangdog features and weary voice conveying both inner torment and sly humor. Kristjánsdóttir also radiates agreeably offbeat charm as Sjöfn, even if her honky-tonk angel character would be more at home in a country and western song than in contemporary Iceland. As in his previous films, Kári also provides the music under his Slowblow alias, a gently twinkling score that mirrors the fragile emotions on screen.
To his credit, Kári does not give his unorthodox rom-com a conventional happy ending, instead contriving a cautiously upbeat pay-off that feels like a humane compromise. But overall, Virgin Mountain steers clear of darkness, depth and psychological complexity. A lightweight portrait of a potentially heavy subject, Kári’s fourth feature is an effortlessly likeable addition to his body of work, but too sweet and gentle to leave much of a lasting impression.
Production companies: RVK Studios, Nimbus Film
Cast: Gunnar Jónsson, Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir, Sigurjón Kjartansson, Franziska Una Dagsdóttir, Margrét Helga Jóhannsdóttir, Arnar Jónsson
Director: Dagur Kári
Producers: Baltasar Kormákur, Agnes Johansen
Cinematographer: Rasmus Videbaek
Editors: Andri Steinn Gudjónsson, Olivier Bugge Coutté, Dagur Kári
Sales company: BAC Films, Paris
Unrated, 94 minutes
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