Perhaps in an effort to piggyback on the success of the delicate and moving Noi, we now have another Icelandic drama in local theaters. But if Noi was informed by Iceland's harsh climate, volcanic substrata and geographic remoteness, The Seagull's Laughter has more in common with universal themes of individual isolation in small backwards communities. This tale of a vain, not-so-young widow and her battle against small-town bluenoses carries intimations of everything from Hawthorne to Flaubert to Ibsen. And, as its title suggests, there's more than a little Chekhov in this story about Freyja and her female cousins as they confront a variety of petty romantic travails in 1950s Iceland.
As played by the Icelandic actress Margrot Vilhjalmsdottir, Freyja is a woman in her 30s, more of a well-built and smoothly-functioning sexual creature than a beauty. Still, she's returned from the United States following the untimely death of her serviceman husband; Freyja's a bit of a scandal, but the glamour-starved townspeople can't take their eyes off her. One of the film's earliest laughs comes when Freyja explains that her American husband keeled over from a heart attack, "while I was defrosting the fridge." Instead of clucking over the death, her cousins marvel, "You have a fridge?" This, of course, is exactly the reaction Freyja wants.
Most of the household's women (who include pretty and dim Dodo, the sweet, innocent and perhaps retarded Ninna and two older matrons) are suitably impressed by the fresh currents of worldliness that swirl around Freyja, but the youngest daughter Agga is suspicious. She's the truculent one, the family snoop and tattletale, and she has a penchant for visiting the town's handsome but complacent constable in his office and regaling him with her theories of Freyja's evil nature. There's that American husband, for one, and then there's the supposedly accidental death of a local drunken bully.
But the investigations of this intensely irritating girl only serve to sink the movie. Instead of developing the story from the riveting vantage point of Freyja, director Agust Gudmundsson, working from Kristin Marja Baldursdottir's novel, elects to show events through Agga's eyes. The wide-eyed, all-seeing young narrator is a tried and true device for Euro art-house films, and here it's infuriating because Agga is simply a distraction from potentially riveting emotional material.
Vilhjalmsdottir's performance as a self-possessed, yet desperate, unstable and bulimic small-town vamp is a delight to behold. Freyja aggressively exploits her physical charms for her own advancement, and she locates her ticket to bourgeois comfort in the form of Theodor, an engineer from one of the town's wealthier families. But Freyja also happens to be an impulsively violent woman whose erratic behavior occasionally serves the interests of her downtrodden female companions. (She also becomes the only friend to the town drunks, slipping them drinks against the wishes of the town constable.) There's a remarkable sadness and futility in Vilhjalmsdottir's sub-Arctic Emma Bovary, and the film's Chekhovian title comes from the mocking sounds she hears in a hallucinatory moment of madness midway through the film.
It's unfortunate that, instead of focusing on its strongest asset, the film settles for being an episodic ensemble piece. As the rambling narrative shuffles to its conclusion, The Seagull's Laughter increasingly resembles a Nordic Steel Magnolias as the women of the film band together against the mortal and venial sins of the men in their lives.
In March, we ran a review of What Alice Found, Dean Bell's marvelous and revelatory road drama, in anticipation of the film's release on the coming Friday. Well, the film never showed up at Cary's Madstone Theater, but the theater's bookers tell us they will be opening it this weekend (along with Chapel Hill's Chelsea), some six weeks after its original date.
It's an unfortunate fact of life for local movie critics that opening dates for art house films are unreliable. Occasionally, we're not informed until the day we go to press that a promised movie will not materialize. Not only is it frustrating to those of us trying to provide timely reviews, but it's a source of exasperation to local exhibitors as well. Although one would think that, ultimately, booking decisions would be made by the people who own the local art houses, those decisions are in fact in the hands of bean counters in New York, big picture people in charge of distributing the "little" pictures.
The most recent irritation of this sort was Lars von Trier's Dogville, which was scheduled to open last week; a local press screening was held and at least one review was prepared. But, due to the film's underwhelming box office performance in larger cities, that release date has been changed (as of this writing) to May 14. If anything, our status as a third-tier market serves to remind us that indie and foreign film distribution is a business. A distributor of a risky, commercially-dicey project like Dogville will deploy their cash conservatively, by striking just a few prints and trying out the film in New York and L.A. The subsequent commitment to the film is almost entirely dependent on the tastes of movie-goers and critics in those cities.
One supposes that this is a sensible, one-size-fits-all template for doing business, but there was a time when all movies, not just the art flicks, were released in a rolling pattern across the country. A movie might open in the big cities and in select Midwestern cities, then spread throughout the country as local tastes warranted. The first movie to "open wide" on the same date in cities large and small across the country was Jaws in 1975 and today everything hinges on the first few days of release. Major studios spend the vast majority of their advertising budget to deliver that $90 million opening weekend for Matrix Reloaded; in this way, they maximize their returns before audience word-of-mouth takes control of a movie's fate. And indie/foreign film distributors have largely given in to this mentality, with a movie's dissemination to the provinces largely dependent upon early returns in a select few theaters in Greenwich Village and Westwood. One recent and spectacular exception to this pattern, however, was My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Whatever the artistic merits of that film may be, all credit is due to IFC Films for building its audience slowly and deliberately, with a marketing plan carefully tailored to each community.
What Alice Found is a much humbler movie than even My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and it has none of the hip cachet of Dogville, with its famous director and international cast. It's something much simpler and rewarding: a good story, well-acted and well-told. It's a gentle yet sexually and emotionally frank story of a young woman's adventures on Interstate 95 en route to Florida, where she hopes to find refuge from her dreary working-class existence in Maine. After a couple of sinister encounters on the highway, she's forced to abandon her car when it breaks down somewhere in New Jersey. But a kindly middle-aged couple happens to be on the scene, and they offer Alice a lift in their RV.
What happens next is a big enough surprise, but the filmmakers really earn their stripes for the gracefully complex development of the characters' relationships with one another. What Alice Found is a sterling example of a great "small" movie, and it's one that was made on digital video, with a low, low budget and relatively unknown actors. The best-known member of the cast is Broadway star Judith Ivey, and her star turn as a middle-aged, hillbilly sexpot is reason enough to see the film. Indeed, it's a performance that, in a righteous world, would have garnered an Oscar nomination.
The original review of What Alice Found can be found on the Indy Web site ( indyweek.com/durham/2004-03-24/movie.html ), and my enthusiasm for it remains undiminished.