If you don’t like horses, don’t see this movie. Horses play a main role: small and strong and sturdy Icelandic horses with bushy long manes and tails. They are all over the place and in almost every scene. A close-up view of their eyes and on the world mirrored within them even structures the film and loosely separates it into a variety of mini-stories.
The other dominant impression comes from the landscape — an inhospitable and cold stone plateau, somewhere up in the Icelandic mountains. There’s no space for any romance, and when the film talks about love, it comes down to a mechanical sexual act under the open sky – between two beautiful horses, a black and a white one, or between a middle-aged woman and the man she’s trying to seduce.
Of Horses and Men (Hross i oss) is the first film from Benedikt Erlingsson (born 1969), who has already made a career as a theater director and as an actor. One of the most experienced and best known filmmakers from his country, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, has produced his debut. The result is an astonishingly homogenous work, where every aspect of filmmaking has been treated attentively. The script (written by the director) is well developed, the camera and its movements create a distinctive universe, the music introduces an Icelandic ballad and legend, and the actors are wonderful. If you want so say something negative, you could, at most, say that the film is perhaps a little too perfect and without the kind of mistakes which are normally conceded to first films.
The film does not tell a story. It tells a variety of stories. Such as the tale of a man who wants alcohol. He drives his car to the anchorage of a Russian freighter. The ship has already left. So the man takes a horse and outruns the ship at the sea, swimming, in a scene which is simultaneously thrilling and funny. Back ashore, the man falls off the horse, dead drunk and almost dying — a grotesque ending to an unexpected and surprising episode.
The shifting tone of this scene is reflected elsewhere, as the film flits between serious, dramatic notes and a funny, comedic style. A Mexican tourist almost meets his death on an ice-cold, snowy night (but saves himself inside the warm body of a horse which he has to kill). A man who had just stolen two horses is punished by a mercilessly just fate: On the run, barbed wire pierces his eye and half-blinds him. In between these mini-stories, the camera pans along the horizon and registers the light reflections caused by the binoculars through which the residents of distant houses observe what is going on across the plateau. The landscape seems to be remote and deserted, nevertheless not even the smallest movement escapes the attention of curious neighbours’ eyes. Erlingsson invites to dramatic scenes, to scenes even of life and death; and continues with scenes of a relieving smile.
One of the stories is about a woman who tries to conquer a man. She has a competitor. She is not a fighter. This episode of how she finally manages to convince and win him continues throughout the film, from the beginning where he pays her a visit (on a horse), until the end where they’ve sex in the middle of nowhere (but observed from afar by curious neighbors). It is a story without much dialogue, told in small gestures, in spare views, in hints. The film tells its stories without telling them. This proves Erlingsson’s narrative skills. His film is of an extraordinary originality; and it offers a remarkably worked-out and surprisingly diverse and evolved narrative style.
The film does not need to allude to psychological access to the characters. We understand they are lonely even when they are together. For the rest, their memorable faces belong to the austere landscape. As do the horses.
If you like horses, see the movie. If you don’t like horses, still see it.
Edited by Amber Wilkinson
© FIPRESCI 2013