Ása Helga Hjörleifsdótirr writes and directs her debut feature The Swan. Based on a novel by Guðbergur Bergsson, the movie has won 3 awards and has been nominated for 8. The serene, yet haunting, coming-of-age film shows how a child comes to the realization that life is not as simple as it seems. (SYJ: 4/5)
Read FF2 Media's interview with Ása Helga Hjörleifsdótirr.
Review by FF2 Intern Sophia Jin
Set in the serene Icelandic countryside, The Swan flows into the opening sequence with a vast body of water. This view alongside the calming sound of waves crashing together is almost trance-like. A troubled young girl, “The Girl” (Gríma Valsdóttir), narrates a story to her sisters before her parents remind her to pack.
As punishment for a misconduct, “The Girl” is torn away from her parents and sisters on the coast, and taken to a farm owned by "The Aunt" (Katla M. Þorgeirsdóttir) and "The Uncle" (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) somewhere in Iceland's vast, empty interior. Despite the aunt describing her niece as someone who does not have the eyes of a thief, “The Girl” is in fact sent away for precisely this reason—stealing. After arriving, the nine-year-old calls her mother, then lies to her aunt about her parents separating, all in order to try and return home. Even so, it isn’t long before, “The Girl” becomes accustomed to life on the farm, where she helps out with daily farm work. For the first time in her life, she plays a part in birthing a calf. Having brought it to life, she watches the calf grow bigger and stronger, and cannot help but become attached to it.
During the night, “The Girl” wakes to see a man, “The Farmhand” (Thor Kristjansson), sitting at a desk in her bedroom. He writes rigorously in his journal, which prompts her to ask him a series of questions, all left unanswered. The two strangers are forced into spending a lot of time together, which quickly leads them to form an unusual attachment to one another. As the movie progresses, “The Girl” observes and learns to understand her roommate. On this lonely farm, he becomes a comforting friendly face and a sort of companion. In fact, even with the age gap, the two share a parallel sense of solitude and love for storytelling.
Just as “The Girl” gets used to the farmhouse and its people, a new character enters the household—“The Daughter” (Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir). Introduced as the rebellious type, she shows up out of the blue and listens to loud music in her car. When “The Farmhand” catches sight of “The Daughter”, he isn’t afraid to show his distaste for her queen-like homecoming. Unbeknownst to her parent, she is going through relationship struggles of her own.
The delicate topics of debate shown in Ása Helga Hjörleifsdótirr’s movie, The Swan, aren’t only bold and daring, but also well written, well placed, and well done. Despite some discomfort in certain scenes, Hjörleifsdótirr portrays each circumstance with poise and sensitivity. She successfully depicts a young girl coming of age, and learning many brutal facts about life. The way Hjörleifsdótirr hides several extreme and controversial actions from the audience reflects the way “The Girl” sees things. All the actors played their roles to a high standard, and really entice the audience with their illustration of characters.
Who don't the characters in this film have names? Could this be a way to detach the audience from any one particular person? Possibly. This plays with the viewers’ minds and lets them question who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist. The answer is no one in particular. There’s no one bad guy and no one good guy. It’s just a group of characters living their lives.
This is not a movie about innocence, but rather the loss of it. It portrays the lives of the habitants of an Icelandic farm. With a sense of gloom and darkness throughout, there are moments of joy seen through “The Girl” running in fields and storytelling. This is probably a perfect representation of life. The various uses of nature sounds and relatively simple sound effects emphasize the atmosphere, making it more effective than using constant music.
The drama created in this film is not based on music or over-acting—it is just a sequence of happenings that occur within lives of normal people. Nevertheless, farm life in the Icelandic countryside can be a lot more daunting and dark than expected. Who knows what could happen in vast isolation?
Top Photo: Cover photo, featuring “The Girl” (Gríma Valsdóttir).
Middle Photo: “The Girl” and “The Farmhand” (Thor Kristjansson).
Bottom Photo: “The Girl” in a field of cows.
Photo Credit: Synergetic Distribution USA
There is a conversation between “The Girl” and her mother about being a good child, as well as many brief interactions with her aunt about daily To Dos on the farm.
"The Girl" certainly has a relationship with her cousin, but "The Daughter" is cryptic and flooded with emotions, so while she talks, "The Girl" is most often a mute witness to her rage and bitterness.
Similarly "The Aunt" and her daughter have scenes together, but actual dialogue between them is also spare. They communicate mostly though their facial expressions and body language.
Addendum from FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner: Here are the character names as they appear in the EPK. See more in comments below.