By Alan Mattli
With a little bit of strenuous effort, one might argue that there exists a subgenre of “odd” movies that deal mainly in off-beat humour, skewed plot lines, and peculiar narrative angles. These usually work best if there is at least some sort of artistic or thematic vision to back up their forays into the eccentric. The Big Lebowski worked not least because of its meditation on masculinity and the noir tradition. Wes Anderson’s lasting impact can certainly be co-attributed to the feeling of subversive nostalgia that is consistent throughout his whimsical installations. And both Jim Jarmusch’s and Aki Kaurismäki’s collections of curious and reluctant mavericks run deep with themes of sadness and alienation.
Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson’s episodic quasi-anthology Of Horses and Men (its original title, Hross í oss, roughly translates to “the horse in us”) lacks all these kinds of refinements, opting instead to be just a bit of an eyebrow raiser. The points that do come up – sex, gender, death, and human experience from jealousy to schadenfreude – are not addressed as much as glossed over, cast aside in favour of would-be sharp anecdotes that are often too subdued for their own good.
Telling several intertwining stories centering around rural Icelanders and the life they have built around their horses, the film behaves very much like a Nordic black comedy in the vein of Roy Andersson’s You, the Living or Dagur Kári’s Nói albinói, but is never actually as funny as it feigns to be. That it has been categorised as a drama by Wikipedia seems oddly fitting.
In spite of quite a few amusing, at times refreshingly sardonic vignettes – the topics ranging from equine copulation and subsequent castration to a doomed swimming stunt in search of strong liqour –, Erlingsson overestimates the power of his own, or at least his material’s comic abilities time and again, setting up, for instance, the image of a tölting horse carrying Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson on its back as one of the utmost hilarity (though this may just be due to the audience I saw the film with, which was as chatty as it was susceptible to sudden fits of hysterical laughter). One possible explanation for the disappointing humour is the film’s indecisiveness in finding its tone. As Sigurðsson and Charlotte Bøving give in to their carnal needs in a small vale (during a horse trek, no less), to draw on another example, the awkward staging simultaneously betrays signs of satire, romance, and the grotesque without ever living up to any one of the approaches.
Assessing the merits and flaws of the film ultimately proves to be a challenging task, considering how little of an impact – especially for such an odd little project – the film actually makes. What will likely stay with most cinemagoers are Erlingsson’s calculated provocations and breaks in the stories’ cheerfully bitter surface as well as the strikingly photographed, gorgeously composed images of the Icelandic countryside. Indeed, the latter are, along with repeated shots of horses’ (and, in one fairly random instance, a woman’s) eyes that suggest the narrative power lies in fact with the human characters’ mounts, the movie’s most sustained, certainly its most appealing visual motif. Combined with little white flashes of the nosy horse enthusiasts’ binoculars, with which they spy on their fellows’ misadventures, they create a nice analogy for the deceptive charms of remoteness, offering perhaps something of a counternarrative, however underdeveloped, to the idea of Iceland being an Arcadian haven of peace and quiet, which has been corroborated not least by non-Icelandic cinema (one doesn’t need to look further than Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).
Still, just what one is supposed to gain from seeing Of Horses and Men remains obscure up to the not-so-bitter end. Even though it may motivate hopeful close readings, it is nowhere near interesting, arresting, or indeed astute enough to sustain such efforts for a very long time. It serves as a reminder that in most cases, if a movie relies solely on its own peculiarity, the best it can hope for is to be diverting. And Of Horses and Men just barely manages that.
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.