Review by William J. Hammon, Creator of I Actually Paid to See This blog
While watching the neo-noir Snæland, directed by Lise Raven and co-written with Deborah Goodwin (who wrote Vampires in Venice among other works), my mind drifted to the old contradiction about Iceland being green while Greenland was covered in ice. We all know it. It’s the easiest, most fun example of a comparative misnomer. And the thought kept popping into my head during the film, not just because it’s set in Iceland, but because of the thematic juxtaposition. While Snæland is certainly framed and presented like a film noir, it plays much more like a romantic story of redemption, and the seemingly incompatible presentation succeeds beautifully.
Frank Brückner stars as Fred Haas, a reporter and photographer for what he describes in the opening as “a major German newspaper.” He’s on assignment in a remote small village in Iceland to cover a summer festival where the locals are rumored to roll around in the grass nude and have ceremonies bordering on orgies. He’s met with all sorts of negative reactions, ranging from the amused to the hostile, and it becomes clear that his work is much more for a tabloid outlet than any sort of legitimate journalism.
Weary of his status, as well as the fact that the only person who doesn’t treat him like a parasite is his cab driver, Oskar (Víkingur Kristjánsson), Fred is prepared to pack it in and return home when he spies a young woman swimming in the nearby waters. He later learns that this is Melanie (Emily Behr), a French beekeeper and Oskar’s wife, but on first glance alone, Fred recognizes her as Jeanine Renard, the subject of an international scandal who supposedly died after her imprisonment and public shaming. Sensing an opportunity, Fred further insinuates himself into Melanie and Oskar’s lives, hoping to unmask her as Renard and resurrect his career.
There are some great film noir elements within the overall presentation just from this setup. The combination of the town’s isolated locale, the insular hostility of the townsfolk, the note-perfect score that focuses heavily on metallic percussion, and the reappearance of someone long thought dead gave me wonderful reminders of great films like The Third Man and the original Wicker Man. There was great anticipation for the other shoe to drop and for Fred to become trapped in a deadly game where everyone else has the upper hand.
But in a surprising subversion of story structure, Lise Raven makes it clear that this isn’t that type of movie. While the trappings and tropes of classic noir are there, this is really a tale about second chances and introspection. A local peeping tom serves as a living metaphor for the voyeuristic nature of the tabloid press, concerned only with self-gratification rather than the consequences for those given the attention they never asked for or consented to. It’s hammered home later on with a fascinating dream sequence where Melanie turns the tables and tries to watch back.
But even he is treated with a forgiving lens, as he’s later shown to be a caring father and thoughtful individual. His perversion is a distraction, an outlet for release that we all need, and the film constantly treats everyone with that sense of empathy. Melanie simply wants a new life after the hell she went through in her past. Fred wants to be a respected journalist again and wants the consistent companionship he’s eschewed for most of his life. Oskar, somewhat of an outcast himself after leaving the family fishing business to make his own way as a cabbie, learns French in secret to be that much closer to the woman he loves.
In a traditional noir, all of these bits of character development would either be red herrings or clues to something more sinister. Here, they’re added dimensions, giving depth and pathos to what otherwise would be little more than moving pieces on a grand mystery chess board. It’s surprisingly refreshing to see such a caring view on all sides of the potential conflict.
There are definitely some flaws in the film, mostly production aspects that give the final product a more amateurish feel. They’re mostly little things like the sound mix and some glaring continuity errors. And despite the gorgeous scenery of Iceland (on par with New Zealand in the “How Dare Any Country Be This Pretty” film category), the movie really does lack a sense of polish. But really that’s just the difference between super low-budget indie fare and the Hollywood system.
But again, this isn’t an action set piece or a gritty noir drama. It’s a character study sneaking around as if it were a noir, so a lot of those flaws can be easily ignored. Even the title, Snæland, feeds into this beautiful deception. The word, a colloquial nickname for the country, literally means “Snow Land.” Snow and ice are made of the same thing, but they represent different stages and circumstances. Snow falls and drifts about, looking for a place to settle, just like the three main characters in the film. Ice, on the other hand, is rigid and static. In a traditional noir, the filmmakers would establish certain traits about characters and scenarios and be done with it, everything frozen in place. Not here.
One of the best visual metaphors in the film is the idea of coming from darkness to light. Taking place during the midnight sun (Fred has to wear a blindfold and have black curtains to sleep), every time Oskar drives someone to and from the village, they go through a poorly-lit tunnel, emerging into stark brightness when they exit. Only Oskar himself never bothers to shield his eyes when it happens. It serves as a constant thematic reminder that even the worst of us has goodness in them, and that light and dark operate symbiotically in balance. As long as you don’t look away, you can see it for yourself.