Dir: Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson
Starr: Hilmar Jonsson, Harpa Arnadottir, Svein Olafur Gunnarsson, Hilmir Jensson
Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark (Screen 5)
Icelandic actor turned director Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson does a very curious thing in his debut feature The Homecoming (2015). Having chosen to utilise one of the most melodramatic and taboo topics as a key plot point (namely, incest), Haraldsson then rather artlessly explores this theme in over an hour of ploddingly paced drama. Hilmar Jonsson’s Gunnar is the patriarchal figure whose misdeeds have come home to roost in the most unlikely of fashions. A frustrated author of a hugely popular series of self-help books, Gunnar lives in a degree of complacent middle class luxury with his waspish wife Herdis (Harpa Arnardottir). Gunnar’s comfortable existence is punctured by two family dramas. The first involves the slow death of his brother, Gestur, from brain cancer. The second is to do with his son’s whirlwind romance of a young Icelandic woman called Sunna (Dorunn Arna Kristjansdottir) who has been living in Denmark for the past eighteen months. The incestuous act takes place between Gunnar’s son Davio (Hilmir Jensson) and Sunna, as unbeknownst to them both they are connected by blood; although the precise blood link is left precariously balanced over the edge of a devious narrative precipice. Gunnar quickly works out that Sunna’s mother was in fact a woman that he had an affair with whilst living away from Herdis when his wife was pregnant with Davio. This affair has remained a family secret, the revelation of which provides one of the film’s many bombshells. Played as a straight drama the film is ridiculous, but as Haraldsson progresses through the narrative he begins to inject an unsettling level of black comedy into proceedings, much of which is derived from the gap between what Gunnar wants to happen and what has actually taken place.
The fact that Haraldsson begins with a virtuoso sequence set around the luminescent dining room of the family’s summer home, only to not utilise the power of this sequence again until close to the film’s end, is perhaps the most frustrating feature of a very uneven comedy of manners. The opening scene is a rigorously framed non-conversation between Gunnar and Herdis in which Haraldsson uses camera angle and proximity to suggest things about this marriage that are only really confirmed until the film’s final half hour. The breakfast table smartly divides the couple, Herdis reading her tabloid newspaper and Gunnar perusing a more serious read. Their conversation is driven by Herdis’s sniping and gossiping about the delinquent marriage of one of their near neighbours. Gunnar is responding to Herdis’s remarks, but Herdis seems barely aware of him. It is only when Gunnar unexpectedly breaks the repetitious monotony of this breakfast encounter, by declaring he is off for a swim that Herdis responds directly to her husband. The response is an excellent piece of writing, with Herdis enquiring as to whether her husband had already talked about going swimming or is it something more spontaneous.
What becomes apparent about this opening scene is how it marries up to a central theme of the film, a theme that is best articulated in Gunnar’s facile self-help idea of ‘talking and listening’. Both characters do a fair amount of talking in this opening scene, but it is talking that comes with the inbuilt complacency of many years of seemingly somnambulant marriage. In effect, the rest of the film is about this couple progressing to a point where they talk directly to one another and listen to the painful things that each one has to reveal. It is quite telling that the only relationship within the film that evidences a high degree of honesty and candour is that of Gunnar and Gestur. The two brothers can talk openly about almost anything, yet the one thing that is skirted around by both of them is perhaps the most important. Gestur’s final conversation with his brother is marked by a particular sentence in which the dying man advises his troubled brother: “There is nothing more difficult than asking for forgiveness”. The events of the film’s close suggest that Gestur knows precisely how true this statement is.
Icelandic cinema seems to be in an increasingly healthy state. Last year’s Rams (2015) was a pitch-black work of deadpan humour that I thoroughly enjoyed. There are similarities in The Homecoming, especially the admirable degree of discomfiting comedy throughout. Despite the dull opening hour the film has a real ear for little moments of caustic and cutting humour that reveal the malformed shape of a long relationship. When Gestur removes himself from the hospital to attend a choir practice, his friend, the choir leader, states: “We were going to sing ‘Hardy Men’ but maybe we should change it for a eulogy”. The dining table of the opening scene is also deployed as the site of probably the most masterful sequence in the entire film, a moment of family revelation that is played with such precise and blackly comic timing that it immediately raises the film out of the doldrums. Each frame of this sequence seems to capture and isolate the characters in a moment of enforced introspection. The length of shot is just long enough to draw the truth, kicking and screaming, from their lips. When the scene is finally punctured by a thoroughly inappropriate laugh The Homecoming has somehow managed to reward this viewer’s patience.
One other way in which the director egregiously misplays the subject matter of his film is to do with the way in which he chooses to frame incest. The idea of incest is planted by Gunnar’s theatrical reaction to Sunna’s description of her mother. Within a scene this idea has taken root and grown into clear confirmation of Gunnar’s worst fears. The film seems to suddenly take an extremely serious approach to its melodramatic theme, yet simultaneously frames the interactions of the young lovers as if the camera were now freighted with Gunnar’s loaded gaze. This, in itself, would possibly work as a visual strategy if deployed consistently in relation to Gunnar alone. However, during a scene in which Davio and Sunna have sex, with Gunnar able to hear them from the kitchen downstairs, the camera continues to deploy this queasy, loaded gaze in a way that heavy-handedly underscores the weird stance that the film itself seems to be taking toward the idea of incest. On the one hand the film is attempting to convey the genuine horror of Gunnar’s unspeakable knowledge, yet it is also using the idea of incest as a crude comic prop. What I found myself left with in this scene was a troubling sense of voyeuristic agency that verged on the pornographic, without ever justifying this. Haraldsson’s film is certainly flawed, seeming to stumble around blindly groping for the significance of its melodramatic central contrivance, but the craft of the comedy in key sequences suggests there may be genius at work here, if only the director could resist the overreach of pathos and crude sensationalism.