The Seagull’s Laughter (Icelandic)

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We gather from “The Seagull’s Laughter” that things were a bit different in Iceland in the 1950s from what they are today. When a local girl returns after some years of living in America and reports that her husband dropped dead one day while she was defrosting the refrigerator, her girlfriends squeal, “You had a refrigerator?!”

The local girl is Freyja (Margret Vilhjalmsdottir), and she has a Blanche DuBois, “Streetcar Named Desire” quality about her. She seems to have led a fairly privileged life in the U.S. and she clings desperately to her social status now that she’s come home to a small fishing village where men are scarce and good, non-alcoholic, non-abusive men are even scarcer.

She’s craftier than Blanche, though, more able to deal with dastardly menfolk than her unliberated gal-pals are. You start to wonder how her G.I. husband back in America ACTUALLY died.

Freyja moves in with a woman identified only as Grandma (Kristbjorg Kjeld), matriarch of a large, humble family that includes a mildly retarded grownup daughter, various female friends and quasi-relatives, and a precocious young granddaughter, Agga (Ugla Egilsdottir), who acts as a sort of commentator as things unfold around her. (Grandpa is a sea captain, of all things, and is gone a lot. When he’s home, he maintains a figurehead leadership role, but mostly he defers to Grandma to run things.) Agga is immediately suspicious of Freyja and reports her feelings to Magnus (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason), the local cop whose one-room office is across the street from Agga’s house. Magnus humors the girl, but mostly he’s interested in meeting the lovely Freyja, since, let’s face it, women are scarce here, too.

Immediately becoming part of the local scene, making friends and raising eyebrows with her liberated ways and her fancy American dresses, Freyja is cast as the Fairy Queen in a town pageant. She identifies with fairies, and fancies herself one. “Sometimes they fall in love with humans,” she says. “That never turns out well.” Indeed.

Freyja stirs up trouble by becoming engaged to Theodor (Heino Ferch), who was previously engaged to a magistrate’s daughter and is taking a step down, society-wise, to marry a working-class gal like Freyja. Theodor’s mother (Jonina Olafsdottir) despises Freyja, and it should be noted that people who cross Freyja do not usually have a good time of it.

Written and directed by Iceland’s Agust Gudmonddson (adapted from a novel by Kristin Marja Baldursdottir), the film captures the quaintness of provincial life with humor and drama, deftly mixing in feminism, too, in a way that is subtly funny and even a little disturbing. These women aren’t part of any movement; they simply find they must take matters into their own hands if life is going to be livable. Agga reminds me of a young Christina Ricci – a grown-up in a child’s body – and it is intriguing to see the character slowly go from being a little girl to becoming a woman … a woman just like Freyja and the rest. Whether that’s good or bad depends on whether you’re a man or a woman, I suppose, and whether you live in a small fishing village where a woman like Freyja runs things.

B (1 hr., 40 min.; Icelandic with subtitles; Not Rated, probably R for some strong sexuality, some nudity, a few mild profanities.)

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