If we can glean any trend so far in the feature films of Icelandic actor-turned-director Baltasar Kormákur, it would be his ability to offer up utterly unsympathetic characters who are difficult to identify with, while somehow managing to keep us interested in their fates regardless. His feature directorial debut, 101 Reykjavík, offered up actor Hîlmir Snaer Gudnason as a layabout leeching off his mother and fooling around with her lesbian lover, all the while planning his future life as a welfare cheat. Gudnason returns as one of the more sympathetic characters in Kormákur's second directorial outing, The Sea, but that isn't saying much--only that an entire family of thoroughly unpleasant Icelanders gets presented this time around.
The film may be a drama of familial dysfunction, but it opens in a fashion designed to quickly catch the eye and the ear. After some completely silent opening credits on black, sound and picture kick in on a man in a blood-soaked shirt pouring gasoline all over a room and setting things on fire. In the next scene, a crying man in soaked clothes lies atop an overturned car half-submerged in a pond. There's a little deception at work here--the gasoline-pouring guy and the crying man at first appear to be cause and effect, but in actuality the scenes have nothing to do with each other except in the broadest possible sense. Still, they're both strong images, probably designed to jolt awake those audience members expecting to gradually settle in to a quiet little foreign film.
Attention thus grasped, we go back in time to Paris some days earlier, where we meet Gudnason, herein named Agúst and speaking English (a big Hollywood career is only a matter of time), along with his beautiful girlfriend Françoise (Hélène de Fougerolles of Va Savoir), who's pregnant with his child and insisting that they attend a family reunion that has been commanded by gúst's father Thórdur (Gunnar Eyjólfsson), who, as his name suggests, has something of a thundering presence.
Agúst may have had some traumas in his past, but he's hardly the martyr type, reacting by becoming a callous womanizer who seems to want nothing more than for Françoise to leave him. Surprisingly, she sticks around through thick and thin without being given any incentive to do so, which makes her either the film's most sympathetic character or contemptibly naïve or both.
En route to Iceland, Françoise asks Agúst what kind of place his hometown is. He responds with an anecdote about his sister being molested by church officials, and his father's response that idiots get raped by idiots. "It's that kind of place," Agúst concludes.
As if to prove that bad parents breed bad parents, the now-grown sister Ragnheidur (Gudrún S. Gisladóttir) has become a rather unpleasant and unsuccessful mother, complete with teen-age son who dresses like Eminem and occasionally acts like him when no one's looking. But just for balance, there is one martyr in the family: brother Haraldur (Sigurdur Skúlason), who helps Thórdur run the failing family fishing business and gets browbeaten daily by his scheming tart of a wife (picking up where Dad leaves off) who's determined to get the company sold and grab the cash for herself.
Perhaps it also bears mentioning that Thórdur's current wife, Kristin (Kristbjörg Kjeld), is also the maternal aunt of gúst, Ragnheidur and Haraldur. But Kristin also has a daughter--the severely horny, fast-driving Maria (Nina Dögg Filippusdóttir, whose middle name is just about as far from descriptive as you can get). Maria has long had the hots for Agúst, so when he arrives she sets about sabotaging his relationship with Françoise. Hey, it's a small town--some mild incest is no big deal, right?
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Lest we forget, there's also one more family member--Thórdur's conservative mother, who mostly sits and watches TV while drinking, offering observations on life such as her notion that people in the Middle East should all be sent to sea to make men of them, and that people who won't eat whale meat don't deserve to live.
And all that is just the setup. What puts the plot in motion is Thórdur's cognizance of impending senility, which has induced him to write a tell-all memoir, and also to force Agúst to take over the failing family business. Old traumas will soon rise to the surface, and dysfunction will metastasize into disaster. As we saw in the beginning, something will burn.
It's hard to actually like any of these characters, as they are virtually all defined by their flaws, and most of their motives are purely selfish. The emotional appeal could be likened to that of a car wreck--Kormákur knows you'll have to look just to see how bad it gets, and how serious the resultant scars are.
There's plenty of whimsy to keep things from getting too dark, though, whether from the English slogan on a pizza box ("Make pizza, not war!") or a local cop whose biggest difficulty is in dealing with a black ram. As family reunion trauma flicks go, The Sea is by no means up to the standards of Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, but it does make clear that Kormákur is a director whose evolution will be interesting to watch.