Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson is a director that thrives in stark contrasts. He floats brutal and constant scenes of mundanity within awe-inspiring scenes of more transcendental beauty; placing often dislikable characters against Iceland’s much lauded landscapes. Paris of the North follows an approach to filmmaking that was evinced quite clearly in Sigurdsson’s previous work, Either Way. Once again, Sigurdsson is drawn to human beings in a state of existential apathy, promulgated by the very state of existence itself – only to find themselves dwarfed into irrelevance by the consistently more alluring backdrop of Iceland’s natural world that sits neatly in the background of all of Magni Agustsson’s shots.
The film opens on the recently-divorced Hugi (Björn Thors) wrapping up the day of teaching his primary school class before jogging through a small village in northwest Iceland. He’s brought to a stop – both physically and emotionally – by Erna, a woman he is dating at the beginning of the film (who moves in from the periphery as the movie continues), who tells him she thinks they’re going nowhere. From the start, there’s a clichéd wit in the scriptwriting, with Sigurdsson flirting with the fine line between humour and cringe as Erna tells Hugi “you’re just running around like a headless chicken” before he coyly responds, “I just ran 10km”. After their engagement ends, Hugi encounter a neighbour and has an argument about having a terrace, like the rest of the homes in the village. Again, the humour is drawn from the mundanity of the setting as Hugi grumpily tells the neighbour “I told you, I don’t want a terrace. I don’t need a terrace” met with the simple response “nobody needs a terrace.” It’s not like Paris of the North is a fall-on-the-floor non-stop assault of comedy, but in cheesy subtlety there’s a lot of success; a lot of which is enforced by Agustsson’s aforementioned camerawork.
One of the major selling points for Sigurdsson’s film is the presence of Magni Agustsson, guiding the camera throughout with a persistent precision in framing; placing the frustrated and apathetic Hugi against scene after scene of astounding shots of nature and the serene and small-scale village he resides. In particular, there’s a nuance to Agustsson’s presentation of the vast Icelandic landscapes he depicts. They don’t simply exist as beautiful, but often more sublime, frightening and overwhelming in their gargantuan presence. There’s always perpetual question that emerges in shooting within locations that already possess a certain beauty to them – of how large of a role the filmmaker actually has in cementing this throughout the movie vs. how much of it originates from the setting itself. While it’s clear in Paris of the North that the shooting locations are astounding on their own, Agustsson’s ability to command and manipulate these images with variation and precision is a strong mark in the films favour.
Paris of the North feels – much like Sigurdsson’s first feature film – inoffensive to a point that prompts a sort of disinterest out of the audience. While not every film needs to present purely likeable characters, there are abundant times throughout where Hugi’s trials and tribulations aren’t dislikable – instead, they can simply feel boring. The movie certainly portrays a particular way of a slower life in Iceland, and the emotionally inexpressive men who partake in. In painting this image, Sigurdsson is successful, however, in the lack of anything lasting to sustain interest it’s worth asking whether it was worth making. There’s a sense of thematic repetition that plagues Sigurdsson’s work throughout at the same time. The characters are different – and the landscape is slightly shifted – but in the end there’s very little that separates what the director was doing in Either Way with his more recent filmic venture. In the end, Paris of the North is the stronger of the two films and in a world where similarities dictate one of the two be disregarded, Sigurdsson’s latest flick is worth the watch. It’s a flawed piece, but it scrapes through with a constant appeal to a natural beauty that makes this character drama feel like it’s constantly striving to be something more – while it doesn’t always succeed, there are plenty of moments that redeem the poorer moments.