Of Horses And Men (Hross í oss)

Iceland (2013) Dir. Benedikt Erlingsson

Humour as we know is very subjective and it is fair to say that European humour, especially around the Nordic regions, is often a law unto its own and doesn’t always travel so well. Which brings us to this directorial debut from Icelandic actor Benedikt Erlingsson, a film purported to be a black comedy, and while I have enjoyed some of these in the past, this one escaped me.

Presumably a pun on the classic John Steinbeck novel (but nothing like it story wise), Of Horses And Men is a fairly self-explanatory title as it features a series of short skits involving – you guessed it – horses and men, although there are a few female equine lovers too. Set in a small rural village every interaction among the humans one way or another involves horses, while the animals themselves get to share the odd moment together too.

I must confess that I wasn’t able to follow the characters or the individual stories particularly well due to the lack of dialogue and helpful exposition, so the following synopses are based on information found in other reviews, which suggests I must have been the only dunderhead unable to make neither head nor tails out this.

Anyway, the first of these equestrian based skeins involves a dapper horse owner Kolbeinn (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson) who rides his white mare (more of a Shetland pony type really) to have lunch with his lover, Solveig (Charlotte Bøving). When leaving, Solveig’s male horse decides now is the time to break free from his field and ingratiate himself with Kolbeinn’s mare – while Kolbeinn is still sat on her!

Unfortunately this was the only bit I personally found amusing which isn’t a particularly glowing indictment of my level of humour. Later a drunkard (Stein Armann Magnusson) rides his horse into the sea so he can by some vodka from a trawler ship. Two villagers Grimur (Kjartan Ragnarsson) and Egill (Helgi Björnsson) bicker over the use of barbed wire to block riding paths and a young woman Jóhanna (Sigríður María Egilsdóttir) astounds everyone by gathering up six runaway horses on her own.

Whether a deliberate homage of not, a Spanish tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada)  becomes separated from his group and takes a leaf out of Han Solo’s book from The Empire Strikes Back in order to stay warm when a snowstorm hits. Yes – ugh!

Death is a recurring theme throughout this film for both man and beast, yet we find ourselves more sympathetic towards the passing of the horses than the humans. That isn’t to say they necessarily deserve to meet their maker but in some instances they brought on themselves. If anything the horses often prove to be smarter than their human owners are and even with their animalistic tendencies behave with more dignity and grace.

Without being able to follow the narrative it is hard to determine what Erlingsson was aiming for with this film, but a tribute before the end credits to his mother would lead one to infer that she had a love for horses and perhaps the death aspect was Erlingsson’s way of handling her passing. Then again I could be wrong since the symbolism in this film is extremely dense (or maybe I am?) and the motives are less personal.

On a more positive note the horses are extremely well behaved and prove themselves excellent performers. Many are free to just graze or run around in a drove when necessary; only a few get to “act” and are not just fun to watch but handle their often dramatic scenes with amazing discipline. One, as already mentioned, is subject to castration and two others die, and while a disclaimer assurers us no horses were harmed, we are convinced they have passed on.

Another major contributing factor which assuredly pleased those who enjoyed this film is the scenery itself. The Icelandic countryside is captured in all its unfussy and bucolic glory, resembling the English and indeed any European rural landscape but with an eerie and changeable quality to match the moods of the various scenes.

There is a vibrant energy to the opening scene as Kolbeinn and his horse trotting down a country road in a unique canter, the rolling hills providing a picturesque backdrop in the distance. For the winter scenes, the snowy vistas remind us of the gloomy and oppressive locations many Nordic Noir crime dramas play out in while the final scenes during a dreary windy day could have taken place in the Yorkshire Moors.

A recurring motif, usually appearing at the start of a skit, comes in the form of an extreme close-up of a horse’s eye with a key component –  the barbed wire or one of the cast – reflected in it. It may be a CGI trick but the effect it creates is undeniably whimsical in suggesting the point of view of the horse, its passive an unresponsive glare serving as a weary resignation for what is to come from the foolish human that surround it.

Yours truly may have been on the outside of what was happening here but the cast clearly seem to be on Erlingsson’s wavelength and accommodate his esoteric ideas with gusto and aplomb, no matter how darkly outrageous or physical the demands may be. For a first time director Erlingsson demonstrates a keen eye for using external vistas to set the scene and build an atmosphere.

Of Horses And Men ultimately did nothing for me, but I commend those who were able to discern so much detail – including names, most of which were barely, if ever, mentioned – from what I found to be largely oblique. At just 83 minutes it didn’t take up too much of my time but while I can’t say this is a bad film, it isn’t one I particularly enjoyed either. Only serious and superior feeling arthouse lovers should bother with this film.