February 3, 2023

Travels by Film – 101 Reykjavik (Reykjavik, 2000)

101 is the postal code for the central district of the capital city of Iceland, Reykjavik. It’s full of bars and shops and, these days, hotels and hostels. Sitting at its peak is Hallgrimskirkja, the church that looks like a seal balancing a ball on its nose.

101 Reykjavik is a film by Baltasar Kormakur (2000) based on the well-known and controversial Icelandic novel 101 Reykjavik by H?allgrimur Helgason (1996). Why controversial? Probably because it portrays the sort of Icelander everyone knows but no-one wants to own as a national identity.

When we think of Iceland we think of Vikings. We think of strapping fishermen and farmers, with golden hair and ginger-tinted beards. Stop me if that’s only me. But look in any Icelandic magazine and you’ll see pages full of these bearded gods.

Nowadays we also think of lilting voices and ethereal music – bands such as Sigur Ros, Of Monsters and Men, Mum, and Olafur Arnalds, plus of course the nutty Bjork, the wonderful FM Belfast and the brilliant GusGus. As a friend of mine says, Iceland is a country where the men sing like women and the women sing like elves.

The film begins with three images that to me sum up Iceland: snow, sex and drinking. (*This is from observation not experience, let me add.) And mountains. Usually covered in snow. And wind, chilling wind: weather is a character in this film and a huge presence in Iceland.

But overall 101 Reykjavik presents a different picture. The central character Hlynur never leaves the 101 district unless forced to by his mother with whom he still lives at the age of 30. He’s unemployed, he drinks, parties and treats women badly. He’s not very heroic. Hence, his unpopularity as a portrayal of Icelandic manhood today, and the controversial nature of both the book and the film, 101 Reykjavik. The scenes in which he watches porn are increasingly topical as Iceland strives to outlaw online porn entirely in its attempt to eliminate the sex industry.

Clearly Hlynur’s not descended from true Viking stock and would never ever eat rotted shark or rescue anyone from a snowbound car, let alone an erupting volcano. He lives for the weekends: Friday night drinking and flirting and hoping for sex, Saturday night drinking and talking about what happened on Friday night. “Saturday night is Friday night part 2.”

The problem is that Icelandic women fall pregnant so easily. They’re a fertile bunch and when you head to the local swimming pool to soak off your hangover in a hot tub, you’ll see the same people you saw in the bars but now they’ve got their children with them. Families can be tangled for Icelanders with women having children early and men having them often with different women. And given there’s a population of only 120,000 (and growing) in Reykjavik (320,000 in Iceland), everyone knows everyone. It’s complicated. Especially given their family names: sons get their father’s name plus ‘son’, daughters get their father’s name plus ‘dottir’. So a brother and sister might be surnamed Jonsson and Jonsdottir or Magnusson and Magnusdottir. It’s very hard to know who’s related to who.

Hlynur’s life becomes complicated when his erstwhile girlfriend Hofy gets pregnant. Even more so when Lola, his mother’s lesbian girlfriend, also gets pregnant – to him. How does he tell his mother that he had sex with Lola on New Year’s Eve?

The name Lola is not accidental; it’s the premise of the film. She’s a Spanish flamenco dance teacher who comes from over the seas to wreak havoc on Hlynur’s easy life. The words of the Ray Davies song are basically the outline of the film:
“Well, I’m not the world’s most passionate guy
But when I looked in her eyes I almost fell for my Lola
L-L-Lola, L-L-Lola
Lola, L-L-Lola, L-L-Lola.
I pushed her away, I walked to the door
But I fell to the floor, I got down on my knees
Then I looked at her and she at me”
And the rest as they say is history… And a good plot for an Icelandic slacker movie.

One of the things in the film that I never saw in Iceland is the bathtub under the kitchen bench. Hlynur is soaking in the tub; dinner is ready; his mother hands him a towel and when he gets out of the bath she pulls down the tiled wall and, voila, it’s the kitchen bench. They’ve gone from bathroom to dining room by moving the table. Space-saving genius. I shall never again be told that my flat is too small to have a bathtub. Not that you really need one in Iceland with all those hot pools dotted around the city, the coast and the countryside. Then again, with free thermal hot water gushing out of the ground, why wouldn’t you have a tub in your home?

But while soaking is one of the raison d’etre of Iceland and one of its great tourist drawcards, it’s not the point of 101 Reykjavik. Drinking and sex and snow are. Go to any of the bars in 101 on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll find many a Hlynur – but Monday to Friday the bars are empty: the Vikings are most likely pulling someone out of the snow, or creating internationally-lauded music.

Philippa Burne

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