The Seagull’s Laughter (2001)

“Let these right-wing exploiters gape and stare.”

The Seagull’s Laughter, a strange and hypnotic film, is set in Iceland in the 1950s. The film begins with a light playful, comedic tone, but very quickly morphs into a dark, subversive tale that explores class differences and the suffocating roles of women. The film is told through the eyes of an orphaned young girl, Agga (Ugla Egilsdottir) who is at first impressed by her older, glamorous cousin Freyja (Margret Vilhjalmsdottir). After many years absence, Freya arrives abruptly one day and moves in to the already crowded house where Agga lives with her grandmother.

Freyja left Iceland to marry an American military man, but now she’s back in Hafnarfjordur, a small fishing village. Freyja claims to be a widow offering only a brief, trite explanation that is accepted without question. Meanwhile, she moves in with her relatives. The house contains 5 women–6 once Freyja moves in, and there is only one man in the household who manages to stay away on a fishing boat for most of the year, returning only occasionally for short periods in between work. Freyja’s relatives are more interested in Freya’s 7 trunks of extremely expensive, fashionable clothing than in why she’s back in the village. Well-cut suits show off her 20-inch waist and cling to her stylishly. Freyja seems wildly out of place in the remote Icelandic village. And this, of course, raises the question, why did she return?

Agga is very curious about Freyja, and of all in the females in the household, she remains a little aloof, a little skeptical about Freyja’s motives. The other women form a protective unit around Freyja, and this bond becomes impenetrable when Freyja commits certain acts geared towards protecting and avenging the women in her circle. The roles of women in this Icelandic village are not appetizing. Women of Freyja’s class live in primitive hut-type dwellings, and are subject to beatings and constant infidelity from their brutish husbands. Somehow we know that Freyja won’t tolerate this. She seems removed from this sort of existence, and then she casts her eyes on wealthy engineer Bjorn Theodor (Heino Ferch) a man who’s considered above her class, and much too good for her by most of the villagers. But apart from the obstacle of class removing him from Freyja’s sphere, Theodor is also engaged to another woman–the magistrate’s horsey daughter.

Freyja eventually secures a job in the village’s tiny chemist shop, and she defies societal norms by selling rubbing alcohol to the village drunks. Naturally, this makes her popular with all the drunks in town, but brings condemnation from those trying to enforce the no-alcohol law. Freyja–a Norse goddess of sex, fertility, love, death and magic–amongst other things–becomes a goddess amongst the women of her class in this Icelandic village. Unexplained events hints at a supernatural power. Is she an enchantress, a seductive witch or is she a woman who fearlessly achieves her objectives? Interestingly, it is Agga’s thrust into womanhood that also propels her firmly into Freyja’s circle of female power.

The Seagull’s Laughter is an extremely unusual, multi-layered film. Directed by Agust Guomundsson the film begins with a quirky humorous tone, and yet this beginning is not indicative of the depths of this dark, hypnotic tale. The DVD includes a number of extras: deleted scenes, ‘a making of’ featurette, the theatrical trailer, and an essay by the director. Highly recommended, the film is in Icelandic and Danish with English subtitles.

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