Wednesday, 2 September 2009

[233] Genre, Culture and Identity in Jar City

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur's Jar City (Myrin, 2006), released internationally in 2008, is at first glance a rather generic detective thriller. However, despite the conventional aspects of its narrative, the production team manage to infuse the film with a distinctive sense of identity and character, taking inspiration from its country and culture of origin.

When first released, many critics were quick to highlight the film's close ties to many detective-based television series, such as Inspector Morse and A Touch of Frost (a review in Sight & Sound magazine led with a remark that the film should be retitled 'Inspector Norse'). Indeed, like those programmes, Jar City centres around Inspector Erlendur (Ingvar Sigurðsson), a dour, middle-aged policeman with a cynical, pragmatic world-view. He is professional, unwavering in his duties, and routinely fires off bluntly derisive remarks at his relatively inexperienced, or less scrupulous colleagues.





Equally, the narrative trajectory of the film employs many techniques of both the police procedural genre and the crime thriller novel (in fact, the film is adapted from a successful book, written by Arnaldur Indriðason), such as the use of two parallel plotlines, which initially develop separately, but soon converge. Erlendur is following up a case concerning the death of an old man, described as a 'typical Icelandic murder - shitty and pointless', while a young father (Atli Rafn Sigurðsson) mourns the passing of his daughter from a hereditary disease. Before long, these two tragedies become connected, and the detective must follow a twisting, complicated line of investigation to solve the mystery.

However, whereas these narrative tropes and developments are in line with the genre, the innovation of Jar City is evident from the way these conventions are interwoven with specific cultural touchstones. For example, the plot is structured around the topics of genetics, family and society. One of the film's key locations is a research facility, which is tasked with monitoring and cataloguing the country's relatively insulated, genetically pure population. The database housed in this facility is used to track the specific genetic condition, and unearths a long-forgotten cover-up involving a rape, which is linked to both the bereaved father's dead daughter, and the murder victim. This mirrors reality, where companies such as deCODE Genetics uses Iceland as research base, and the use of genetic information is still the source of much debate at the junction of the scientific and political worlds. The use of such an institution in the film is more than simple contrivance, as it helps to tie the conventional plot to Iceland itself.

Furthermore, Jar City uses other aspects of Icelandic culture in order to strengthen its atmosphere and tone. At times, the film exhibits macabre tendencies, especially as the narrative takes in exhuming long-buried corpses, and digging up graves. These gothic undertones are reflected in the film's soundtrack, which prominently features dolorous Icelandic vocal pieces, sung by an all-male choir. Traditional Icelandic cuisine is also incorporated into the film, with a particular scene in which Erlendur nonchalantly orders a cooked sheep's head at a fast food restaurant's drive-thru window.





This particular dish is Svið (picture from ylfamist's Flickr), a delicacy in Iceland, where the head is boiled, after removing the brain and hair. While on a very basic level, this communicates an aspect of the nation's eating habits, the scene strengthens the film's macabre sensibilities, which is reflected in the implicit, subterranean brutality of its chosen culture. Erlendur unwraps the meal, revealing something grey, slimy and unwelcoming, and opens a pocket knife, proceeding to scoop the sheep's eye into his mouth. As he eats, the inspector reads aloud a psalm, integral to the plot. The juxtaposition of austere moralism ('Hear my voice, O God, in my prayer. / Preserve my life from fear of the enemy.'), and his hands-on approach to devouring the meal (breaking the jaw free from the head, pulling meat off the bone with his teeth), also gives the scene a vein of dark, dead-pan humour. A similarly dry scene involves an eccentric pathologist, who chomps on chicken wings while handling decomposing remains and swollen kidneys.

Indeed, the distinct action of the film is portrayed in a very mundane, and subtly humorous, way; an integral chase scene involving young cop Sigurður (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) and prime suspect Elliði (Theódór Júlíusson) subverts convention, occurring across an open field, through a muddy bog (the film's Icelandic title, Myrin, translates as 'moorland' or 'swamp'). Far from the slick editing and choreography of iconic Hollywood films like The French Connection, Jar City's chase is filmed in long takes, lacking the rhythmic underpinning of a driving score. In comparison, the chase is slow, unwieldy and messy - with Sigurður attempting to vault over a fence unsuccessfully, catching his ankle on barbed wire. His ensuing pratfall is not played for tension, but for a peculiar sense of visual comedy, as the detective limps after the overweight, out-of-breath criminal.


The beach ...


Likewise, Kormákur and cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson adopt an earthy colour scheme for their film, highlighting the greens, blues and browns, making the naturally harsh and sprawling qualities of the landscape all the more vivid. The crime and investigation take place in Reykjanes, a coastal, volcanic peninsula on the country's south-western tip (pictures, below and above, from Asmundur's Flickr). Through a series of sweeping airborne shots, often featuring a solitary police Land Rover winding towards a distant house, Kormakur takes in the contradictory nature of Icelandic life outside of the major cities - with communities that are isolated, yet close-knitted, where 'first name and patronymic' is a viable form of address. Again, this aspect of culture is used for humorous ends: rumour travels faster than conventional transport, as local residents hear of the murder, and investigation, before the police begin their questioning.


God's house under heavenly skies ...


By incorporating elements of its native culture, Jar City makes a mark for itself outside of conventional genre exercises. Kormákur and company have managed to use these aspects as distinctive facets of the film's storytelling, humour and atmosphere - creating a piece of cultural communication that informs an international audience of a foreign country though subtle inversion and embellishment of the familiar.

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