Oedipus Vexed

A mama's boy deals with misguided love and boredom in 101 Reykjavik

Every once in a while, those pretentious European types who chide us Americans for being repressed and culturally backward are right. Take the case of Iceland, where most people are at least bilingual (usually Icelandic and English), women walk around the house naked, trip-hop techno is used to score films, and animal-porn videos are available at the local flea market ... wait, what?

All this is true according to the new film 101 Reykjavik, anyway. One might caution that the film also portrays a Republican's nightmare of European "socialism" gone amok, featuring as it does a young protagonist named Hlynur (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) whose stated ambition is to do nothing, specifically "the nothing kind of nothing," while spending his entire life on welfare as he lounges around his mother's house surfing the Net for porn on his iMac. (Jeff Goldblum would be proud: The candy-colored computing devices are apparently used by everyone in Iceland, with not a PC in sight.)

At the overripe young age of 30, Hlynur seems to think he's one of the hard-working angry young men of the British new wave, spending weekend nights at the pub drinking and trying to get laid, while bemoaning the weekdays as "a break from death," which is also his summation of the meaning of life. But since he doesn't actually do anything -- or want to -- he's hardly in a position to complain. Hlynur even seems to think his mother still receives child-support money for him.

Victoria Abril reveals her opinion of Iceland.
Victoria Abril reveals her opinion of Iceland.
Victoria Abril reveals her opinion of Iceland.
Victoria Abril reveals her opinion of Iceland.

As is often the danger with only children who live with their single moms, especially those who have no constructive way to spend their time, Hlynur fixates on his mother (Hanna Maria Karlsdottir) and dreams of being a kid again so he can sleep beside her. He's notably unable to share his sleep-space with any other woman, abandoning girlfriends' beds immediately once copulation has occurred. The other half of an Oedipus complex is also evident -- his dad is a drunk who appears to be homeless, and Hlynur certainly won't spare him a kind thought.

Hlynur doesn't actually sleep with his mother; chances are he's not consciously aware of his desire for her. But luckily for him, a quality surrogate soon comes along when his mom brings home a "friend," the flamenco instructor Lola (Victoria Abril) -- cue up the Kinks' song of that name on the soundtrack and play it repeatedly to the point of insanity, as performed by a computer programmed by Blur's frontman Damon Albarn. It's evident long before anyone admits it that Lola is more than just a friend; rather, Mom is beginning to discover the joys of same-sex love. Lola, however, seems to swing more than just one way, and when Mom goes away on family business, leaving Hlynur and Lola together over the holidays, something's got to give.

As sullen and unlikable as Hlynur would be in real life, it's a credit to Gudnason that we can give half a damn what becomes of him, even if we don't quite care whether said becoming will be good or bad. It's also a credit to director/screenwriter Baltasar Kormakur, adapting the film from the novel by Hallgrimur Helgason (gotta love those Nordic names!), who makes Hlynur's ennui believable -- in part by making the rest of his environment, quirky as it may be, into the kind of place that might breed such a person. Hlynur's relatives are so boring that at family dinners they sit around and watch videos of the previous year's equally boring family dinner; when Hlynur expresses a preference for funerals as family gatherings because "at least there's one less idiot," he doesn't come off as a complete bastard.

Outside of the family, the highlights of the town are a rotating silver Christmas tree that rings out "Merry Christmas!" in a helium-infused English voice, and a lizard named Therir whose owner buys it the aforementioned animal-sex videos. Nightlife seems confined to one pub, where the same people get it on in couplings that vary from week to week. Hlynur has kind of a regular girlfriend, but he does his damnedest to make himself disagreeable to her most of the time. Of course his focus is still on dear old Mom, via Lola.

While 101 Reykjavik has already been compared to High Fidelity, with which it shares the notion of an emotionally immature male narrating a tale of his own failings, it's probably closer to Spanking the Monkey, which took the Oedipal angle even further than 101 Reykjavik while still remaining mostly a comedy. Hlynur is not as inherently huggable as John Cusack's Rob, nor does he have any interests to rival Rob's in pop music (or sidekicks like Jack Black, for that matter). Ultimately, though, events do force Hlynur to get a grip and come to terms with his life, and it's quite a bit more complicated than simply figuring out who the right girl is.

Ample credit for 101 Reykjavik must also go to director of photography Peter Steuger, who films crowded pub interiors every bit as skillfully as he does snow-covered back streets and majestic mountains. That such natural beauty can coexist with such bored humans as Hlynur is not unusual -- ask anyone who's grown up in a small town. That such beauty could fail to inspire the imagination of a bored boy and spur him to strive for more is the greater mystery. While it would likely take more than one movie to uncover a solution fully, 101 Reykjavik does a fine job of probing the depths.

 
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