this week’s TRIBUNE reviews : ‘Jar City’ [7/10] // ‘The Romance of Astrea and Celadon’ [6/10]

Jar City
Iceland 2006

Starring : Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson
Director : Baltasar Kormakur
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The Romance of Astrea and Celadon
France 2007

Starring : Andy Gillet, Stephanie Crayencour
Director : Eric Rohmer
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THANKS mainly – but not by any means exclusively – to Björk and sigur rós, Iceland's impact on the current music scene is wildly disproportionate to its Leicester-sized population of 320,000. Cinema-wise, however, it's always had a much lower profile than the other Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland.) Indeed, for many years the only director much discussed beyond his treeless native shores was Friðrik ížór Friðriksson, whose 1991 Children of Nature remains the only Icelandic film to obtain an Oscar nomination, and who enjoyed acclaim for mental-health drama Angels of the Universe (2000).
   One of that movie's stars was a half-Spanish actor, Baltasar Kormákur – back then best known for co-owning an uber-cool Reykjavik boozer with Damon Albarn, but who's since established himself as a writer/director/producer of note with quirky romantic comedy 101 Reykjavik (2000), then The Sea (2002) and A Little Trip To Heaven (2005), and now the engrossing policier nordique, Jar City. Winner of the top prize at last summer's prestigious Karlovy Vary Film Festival and a box-office sensation back home, it's based on the novel by Arnaldur Indriðason – the most popular of current Icelandic authors, whose page-turning crime-sagas have drawn comparison with Sweden's world-renowned master of 'Scandi Noir', Henning Mankell.
   The focus is on Erlendur (Sigurðsson, the lead in Angels of the Universe), a dourly taciturn career-copper investigating a seedy homicide in one of this famously well-off society's few unsalubrious strata. Though he's distracted by his own domestic problems involving pregnant teenage daughter (Agusta Eva Erlendsdottir), Erlendur's dogged persistence gradually leads him to connect the present case with an unsolved child-murder from 1974…
   So far, so CSI – but Jar City's USP is that the mystery revolves around DNA in an unusual, original way involving the unusually restricted gene-pool that's long made Iceland catnip for genome researchers. While this key detail may spell trouble for the planned American remake (Kenneth Branagh has been linked), it adds extra dimension to what's by any measure a slickly-assembled, efficient little thriller. Kormákur's script is perhaps a touch over-convoluted at times, but this is easily outweighed by the rock-solid performances – Haraldsson particularly good value, and welcome light relief, as Erlendur's handsome but hapless sidekick – and by cinematographer Bergstein Bjorgulfsson's limpid images of the alluringly stark terrain.

THOUGH comfortably the oldest of the five central figures in the Nouvelle Vague – France's 'New Wave' which so profoundly shook up film-making in the late fifties and early sixties – Eric Rohmer has always been better known to hardcore cineastes than the general moviegoing public. Following the example of his colleagues Godard, Chabrol, Rivette and Truffaut, Rohmer was the last to make the transition from film-critic to film-maker, partly because he spent the period from 1957 to 1963 editing the magazine Cahiers du Cinema to which the others all contributed. Best known for Ma nuit chez Maud (1969), Claire's Knee (1970) and Pauline at the Beach (1983), his gently-paced studies of human folly are marked by what Pauline Kael called "seriocomic triviality."
   Now nearing the end of his ninth decade, Rohmer has said that The Romance of Astrea and Celadon – will very probably be his swansong. Though unlikely to win many eleventh-hour converts to Rohmer's oeuvre, it's certainly unlike anything else you'll see in a cinema this year and is rather a graceful way to bow out. As opening text informs us, the picture is inspired by Honore d'Urfe's multi-volume 17th century novel Astrea – set in a semi-imaginary 5th century France of shepherds, maidens, castles and pastures. Rohmer's stated intention is to visualise the story as the d'Urfe's readers might have imagined it: performances are mannered; costuming is basic; sets almost non-existent. While somewhat complex to ponder, the multiple temporal refraction adds much-needed ambiguity to what's otherwise a quaintly chaste 'romance.'
   Though wildly implausible to modern sensibilities, we simply have to accept the various obstacles which fate places in the path of Celadon (Gillet) and his beloved Astrea (Crayencour) – and, taken on its own terms, the film has a beguiling simplicity and directness that is rather refreshing. Indeed, this is arguably a somewhat radical kind of movie to make in 2007/8 – one which makes a virtue out of being so endearingly unadorned, so straightforward in its artlessness. Though it occasionally looks and sounds distractingly like the kind of stilted, lifeless dramas one used to find on children's or schools' television, there's some pleasure to be had watching these well-scrubbed rustics going about their business among sun-dappled paysage – all to the accompaniment of near-incessant birdsong.

Neil Young
2nd September, 2008
written for the current issue of Tribune magazine

JAR CITY : [7/10]Mýrin: Iceland 2006 : Baltasar KORMAKUR : 94m (BBFC)  : seen 30th November 2007 on DVD : original review

THE ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON : [6/10]Les amours d'Astrée et de Celadon : France (Fr/Ity/Spn) 2007 : Eric ROHMER : 109m (BBFC)  : seen 31st January, Pathé cinema, Rotterdam (public screening) – Rotterdam Film Festival : original review