Iceland (2013) Dir. Marteinn Thorsson
We all know power corrupts but what exactly does it corrupt? Ego? Morality? Sense of judgement? Fears and weaknesses? I suppose the truest answer is “all of the above” but that is really only from the observer’s perspective; for the person succumbing to the power trip none of hits home until it is far too late.
Leifur Sigurdarson (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) is an MP in the Icelandic parliament with a rather significant flaw he fails to recognise – his excessively decadent lifestyle. After being caught with his trousers down once too often his friend and boss the Icelandic Prime Minister (Þorsteinn Bachmann) forces Leifur to attend rehab and clean up his act.
Typically, Leifur thinks this is unnecessary but with his job, and the attendant power, on the line, reluctantly agrees, but refuses to go quietly, organising a series of parties and other events with his old friends for one last blow out. But as much as Leifur is in denial about the seriousness of his antics, when things get really out of hand, he is about to get a very rude and very real wake up call.
For his second feature, Icelandic director Marteinn Thorsson presents a disturbing look at the excesses of hedonism and the ripple effect they have in causing ruin for everyone involved, even if they are safely on the periphery. Whilst Thorsson avoids didacticism it is hard not to heed the warnings he proffers in detailing the coat of the damage, whether personal, professional or collateral, it leaves that could have been avoided.
Yet look beneath this depiction of ego-driven self-destruction and we find a metaphorical tale of the collapse of the Icelandic economy at the hands of the global economic crash of 2008. If you recall, Iceland was one of the countries left so devastated by their banks’ inability to restructure to handle the crisis that they had to be bailed out by the IMF, leading to three years of economic depression and civil unrest.
In this film, Leifur represents the carefree attitude of the country’s elite and nouveau riche during its financial boom period, spending money without a care and indulging in anything and everything with abandon. The litany of debauched acts Leifur embraces covers all the usual vices – sex, drugs, drink – but he is complete denial about how badly they affect him, despite it causing his marriage to collapse.
Ex-wife Sjöfn (Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir) resists all attempts at reconciliation whilst his estranged teenage daughter Anna (Tanja Bjork Omarsdottir) finds it hard to muster any goodwill towards him. In one scene, Leifur attends an arty performance Anna is in which has a strong sexual theme and this bothers him. When Anna appears as an angel being deflowered by the male lead, a coked up and enraged Leifur rushes the stage and lamps the male actor!
Maybe we can allow him the folly of being a caring and over protective father but prior to this Leifur has painted himself in anything but glory through his self-absorbed, lascivious behaviour. Not content with regular kinky sex sessions with lawyer/dominatrix Kristina (Elma Lísa Gunnarsdóttir), Leifur also gets his kicks with younger actress Aesa (Maria Birta Bjarnadottir) in a more volatile relationship.
Whereas Kristina has the experience and seniority to keep Leifur in his place, he views Aesa as a plaything he has control over and regular enforces his will on her to remind her of this fact. Like the silly girl she is, Aesa puts up with it, even after Leifur drives his point home during a horrible rape scene, as we see them back on the booze and drugs in the next scene like it never happened.
How this all stays out of the media is a mystery (except for the stage incident which saw Leifur arrested) though it isn’t hard to avoid this hulking, bow-tie wearing public figure doing lines or downing shots in the local bars and clubs. He’s not alone, as his best friend Erikur (Helgi Björnsson), with his younger wannabe singer girlfriend Björk (Hafdís Helga Helgadóttir) join in with the fun, as does elder writer and deviant Hrafnkell (Rúnar Guðbrandsson).
It’s all very well documenting this systematic freefall into chaotic, wanton oblivion and the carnage it leaves in its wake, the personal cost being the greater casualty for Leitfur, but XL misses the chance to bring the bankers and arrogant elite to task for their part in destroying the Icelandic economy. Metaphor the film maybe but the opportunity to vent and give people the chance to share in this, even vicariously, is never taken, leaving this to simply be a visual record of excessive partying.
That said, Thorsson’s presentation of Leifur’s near permanent coke fuelled, drunken haze is rather hypnotic, sharing the view from Leifur’s perspective, of misty, unstable images that flit from one to another with little consistency, constant blackouts, surreal blips and distortions, and head spinning bursts of frenetic double speed trips to the centre of a heavily intoxicated mind. The POV view camerawork mixed with the dizzying onslaught of prurience and perversion puts the audience at the heart of a psychedelic rush without the damage to our bodies.
Give the salacious nature of the material, the script asks a lot of the cast but they give themselves over to Thorsson and bring this nightmare decadent world alive with aplomb and commitment. However, this is essentially a one man show for Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, known to UK viewers from the excellent Nordic Noir TV drama Trapped, in portraying what could be described as a very dangerous Icelandic version of Boris Johnson.
By way of holding politicians accountable for their actions and exposing the tawdry folly of their arrogance and abuse of power, XL covers this quite pointedly inside a brisk 87- minutes. But in delving deeper into the bigger picture of how the hubris of excess can cause far wider damage beyond the individual if not contained, it sadly misses an open goal.