A tween girl discovers a grown-up world of duplicity and hurt in a debut feature from Iceland.
With her lyrical take on a familiar coming-of-age trope — a summer in the country — writer-director Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir conjures a strong sense of place, viewed through the eyes of a hyperalert 9-year-old girl. Based on a 1991 novel by the celebrated Icelandic writer Guðbergur Bergsson (one of his few works to be translated into English), The Swan is a story in which storytelling itself is a key element. The child’s discovery of the beauty of nature, the workaday brutalities of farm life and the adult world’s disappointments and betrayals rings true, to a point, and the young actor in the role is memorably guarded and watchful. In Hjörleifsdóttir’s adaptation, though, the themes are too studied and neat, playing out in a way that can feel oppressive rather than revelatory.
Gríma Valsdóttir plays the aggrieved Sól, whose mother packs her off from their coastal home to the remote farm of a great-aunt the girl has never met. There’s a brief allusion to an instance of stealing as the reason for this turn of events. But while the adults define it as a character-building lesson, Sól experiences punishment pure and simple, chalking it up to her mother’s weakness as she deals with a broken marriage. It’s hard to disagree with the child’s point of view, and the grown-ups she spends time with over the summer only deepen her disillusionment with the ways of the world and a child’s place in it.
Sól is a storyteller, her decidedly dark once-upon-a-time imaginings, heard in voiceover, a kind of self-mythologizing. Back home, her stories revolve around a girl who swims to such depths that she’s nearly strangled by seaweed; once Sól’s in the mountainous terrain of her relatives’ farm, the girl in her tales struggles to breathe after sinking into the earth. One of the people Sól gets to know best — in unsettling ways — is also a storyteller, the farmhand (Þorvaldur Davíð Kristjánsson) who spends his nights working on his own self-mythologizing, in the form of journal entries.
A wounded soul, he none too subtly encapsulates the film’s twisted heart: He’s the most fully realized and sympathetic adult character but also the creepiest. He’s certainly the only one who recognizes Sól’s intelligence, yet in his bitterness he can’t resist toying with her innocence. When he quotes a line from a Tarkovsky film at the dinner table, Sól’s great-aunt (Katla Margrét Þorgeirsdóttir) and great-uncle (Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, of Everest) respond with uncomprehending silence. The raw utilitarian rhythms of working the land are their only philosophy, much to the disdain of their college-age daughter (Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir), who lashes out at everyone in ways that heavy-handedly signal the personal problems she’ll soon divulge.
Her graphic confessions to Sól are some of the cruelest transgressions the girl will endure, but the summer visitor’s education will be complete only with the slaughter of an animal she’s bonded with. What lifts that scene from the predictable and obvious and makes it stirring is the way the child, with the old soul of an artist, implores the doomed calf to “take one last look at the world.”
That world, in The Swan, is not for the fainthearted. It’s a dark fable spun from broken spirits, nature’s startling beauty and the myth of a mountain monster that can disguise itself as the elegant title creature. Hjörleifsdóttir gives Sól’s world a unifying palette, with production designer Drífa Freyju-Ármannsdóttir carrying the greens and blues of the landscape into the farmhouse interiors, but setting off the room of Sól’s troubled cousin as a separate realm, sensuous and arty. And though a certain artiness undermines some of Hjörleifsdóttir’s visual flourishes, cinematographer Martin Neumeyer’s work always captures the emotional power of the child’s experience.
With its overstated themes of life and death, The Swan threatens to sink like the protagonist in Sól’s made-up stories. It doesn’t always manage to stay afloat, but its center never wavers, with Valsdóttir delivering a bracingly unsentimental portrayal of a perceptive outsider weathering an often grim awakening.
Production companies: Vintage Pictures, Junafilm, Kopli Kinokompanii
Distributor: Synergetic Distribution
Cast: Gríma Valsdóttir, Þorvaldur Davíð Kristjánsson, Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir, Katla Margrét Þorgeirsdóttir, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson
Director: Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir
Screenwriter: Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir
Based on the novel by Guðbergur Bergsson
Producers: Birgitta Björnsdóttir, Hlín Jóhannesdóttir
Executive producer: Guðbjörg Sigurðardóttir
Director of photography: Martin Neumeyer
Production designer: Drífa Freyju-Ármannsdóttir
Costume designer?: Sylvía Halldórsdóttir/Lovetank
Editors: Sebastian Thümler, Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir
Composers: Gunnar Örn Tynes, Örvar Smárason