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Director: Ágúst Gudmundsson

Producer: Kristin Atladóttir

Written by: Ágúst Gudmundsson, based on the novel by Kristin Marja Baldursdóttir

Cast: Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir, Ugla Egilsdóttir, Heino Ferch, Hilmir Snær Gud nason, Kristbjörg Kjeld


In The Seagull’s Laughter, the Icelandic landscape is presented as a place of hardened lava beds and dreary coastline. The sky is perpetually gray, the water hopelessly murky, the atmosphere unyielding in its infectious melancholy. And yet, despite all those things (or perhaps because of them), the place seems coldly inviting. There’s a vague element of mystery to the setting that provokes your curiosity even as it tells you to stay away.

The film itself, on the other hand, doesn’t carry with it that air of inscrutability. It’s simply rigid and cold, without the black widow allure of its locale. The mechanics of the story propose a darkly comedic take on gender politics, some deadpan examination of human nature as defined by sexual boundaries. But the laughs come cheap, the cynicism seems forced, and the story eventually collapses under its central conceit: the mistaken belief that sardonic pessimism is the same thing as insight.

As the film begins, Freya (Vilhjálmsdóttir) has just returned home to the Icelandic fishing village where she grew up. After marrying and moving to New York with an American soldier, she’s back, a widow in her mid-twenties. She isn’t really forthcoming on how her husband died, and this is the filmmakers’ shorthand to let us know that we should be suspicious from the outset. Vilhjálmsdóttir plays Freya’s furtiveness well, downplaying the shifty-eyes cliché and instead going for a subtle evasiveness that clues us in to how practiced a liar Freya is. Her looks help, too. She truly is a beautiful woman, but it’s a stealthy beauty, the kind that allows someone to display his or her dark motives out in the open and still not get caught. Freya is hiding in plain sight, and Vilhjálmsdóttir understands perfectly how she operates. She completely inhabits a character that is inherently untrustworthy but a master of manipulation who can gain the trust of anyone she chooses.

Freya’s 11-year-old cousin Agga (Egilsdóttir), though, is the one person who doesn’t swallow Freya’s bullshit. The film is seen through Agga’s eyes, filtered through her own precocity and feisty arrogance. She sees Freya as a predator, a sexual ice queen whose superiority over those around her is enabled by the men who become infatuated with her. (Freya is also the name of the goddess of love in Old Norse mythology, and you better believe the film milks that concept for all it’s worth.) Soon, Freya’s best friend’s husband is dead, and Agga suspects Freya of murdering him. Unable to prove it, Agga instead begins to mope around while quietly scrutinizing Freya’s behavior more than ever.

Agga isn’t a pleasant character, or particularly interesting either, and by making her perspective ours, the film plods forward with a glaring insolence that becomes the script’s central problem. Likeability isn’t necessary in a main character, but the ability to empathize with him or her is. But the way the filmmakers present her, Agga is such a sullen brat, so self-importantly annoyed, that The Seagull’s Laughter itself begins to come off as indignant and harsh. In the end, the film wants to define womanhood as a compromise of principles, as a communal agreement to stick together even if it means breaking the rules. Which is fine, if that’s the message the filmmakers want to get across. It’s definitely a concept with an ambiguous bent, something the film could use more of. But when a statement like that is made with the kind of animus and resentment that The Seagull’s Laughter is dripping with, it does itself a disservice. Because you can’t make a point through clenched teeth.

—Cole Sowell


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