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Cold Fish

An Icelandic family tears itself apart in 'The Sea'

By Richard von Busack

ALL THOSE who hang their head when they hear how well ordered Scandinavia is compared to America will be cheered a bit by The Sea, in which the members of a savagely bitter Icelandic family turn on each other like a pod of sharks. Director Baltasar Kormákur made this Ibsenish drama from a curmudgeonly script by Olafur Haukur Simonarson. The old man Thordur (Gunnar Eyjólfsson) is a titan in his way, and his obstinacy has kept the cannery in the town he lives in from being shut down. On the other hand, why should this community continue? Kormákur captures both the remote, dramatic mountains and the muddy torpor of the nameless coastal town. It's a place where--as the vicious joke about the South has it--any 10-year-old girl who's a virgin is just someone who can run faster than her cousin.

Thordur, who has just written his memoirs and seems almost ready to retire, calls his family to him to decide who will succeed him in keeping the old-fashioned cod-packing company open. The business is in bad shape, caught between governmental regulations and the rapaciousness of the factory canning ships offshore. Thordur's second wife, Kirstín (Kristbjörg Kjeld)--his first was Kirstín's sister, who died--welcomes the family back, little guessing they're mostly drawn in hopes of getting some desperately needed money. Thordur's son Ágúst (Hilmir Snær Gudnason) has been hiding out in Paris, pretending to be a business student, while actually living as a musician. His pushy, and pregnant girlfriend, Françoise (Hélène de Fougerolles), urged him to return to make peace with his father.

Second son Haraldur (Sigurdur Skúlason) is already managing the plant. He has a flamboyantly unhappy marriage; he's kicked around like William H. Macy by his alcoholic debtor wife, Áslaug, a woman as lovely as her name. Áslaug (Elva Ósk Ölafsdóttir) runs a business that's just what this end-of-the-world town needs: a fancy-shmancy boutique with a neon sign on it. (For some reason, the fish packers--mostly Chinese guest laborers--don't have much money for frilly summer frocks.) Yet Áslaug and Haraldur are happy campers compared to sister Ragnheidur (Gudrun S. Gisladóttir), a failed filmmaker who, despite years of study, now directs diaper commercials. Ragnheidur the rageball is a true harpy, with a rich Norwegian husband who worships his Land Rover as if it were a god. And their no-good son is certain that he is actually Eminem.

Writer Simonarson sets up the opposition between the old, stern ways and the lousy Coca-Cola, music videos, hamburgers and pizza invading even this desperately remote portion of the globe. Still, at least the old ways get theirs, too: he rages against the darkness, backwardness, incest and a variety of pickled fish likened to the stench of "shit from beyond the grave" by one of Thordur's sons. Laid on thick as it is, this rich, juicy and often comic drama seems ready to please both halves of the audience: lazy young people and rotten, stubborn old hypocritical monsters alike.

The Sea (Unrated; 109 min.), directed by Baltasar Kormákur, written by Olafur Haukur Simonarson and Kormákur, photographed by Jean-Louis Vialard and starring Gunnar Eyjólfsson, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the May 29-June 4, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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