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SEAGULL’S LAUGHTER, THE (MÁVAHLÁTUR) (director/writer: Ágúst Guðmundsson; screenwriter: from the novel by Kristin Marja Baldursdóttir; cinematographer: Peter Krause; editor: Henrik D. Moll; music: Ronen Waniewitz; cast: Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir (Freyja), Ugla Egilsdóttir (Agga), Heino Ferch (Björn Theodor), Hilmir Snær Guðnason (Magnus), Kristbjörg Kjeld (Grandma), Eyvindur Erlendsson (Granddad), Edda Bjorg Eyjolfsdottir (Dodo), Gudlaug Olafsdottir (Ninna), Jonina Olafsdottir (Doctor’s Widow), Bara Lyngdal (Disa), Benedikt Erlingsson (Hilli), Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Birna), Sigurlaug Jonsdottir (Kidda); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Kristín Atladóttir; The Cinema Guild, Inc.; 2001-Iceland-in Icelandic with English subtitles)
“Maybe the seagulls were, indeed, laughing, but I wasn’t.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Seagull’s Laughter is directed and written by Ágúst Guðmundsson (“The Dance”-1998) and is based on a novel by the same name written by Kristin Marja Baldursdóttir. It takes place in 1953, in a small Iceland fishing village located just outside of Reykjavik. “Laughter” starts out as a typical sitcom comedy/drama and by the end shows its darker side, as its heroine reveals herself as a femme fatale murderess and the film moves awkwardly into noir territory. This comedy/drama can best be enjoyed as a character driven story, whose main storyline is passe. It allies women in a great conspiracy against men, something that never seemed that convincing or that interesting.

Freya (Vilhjálmsdóttir) is the Icelandic version of Rita Hayworth; a beautiful, bosomy, slim figured twentysomething widow with long, chestnut-brown hair, down to her buttocks. She is a working-class girl returning with suitcases filled with fashionable clothes to her native provincial small Iceland village to live with her distant relative, someone affectionately called Granny (Kjeld), after living in America with her American serviceman husband. Even though he was only two years older, Freya reports he died two months ago of a heart attack and in her loneliness she has returned home.

Granny’s nosy eleven-year-old granddaughter Agga (Egilsdóttir) takes an instant dislike to Freya, calling her “colder than a corpse” and “evil.” No one else in the household agrees, though all find her mysterious. Granny’s oldest daughter is the 25-year-old Ninna, a gentle soul who is somewhat retarded. The youngest daughter Dodo is a 21-year-old. She’s a hard worker and loves to have a good time. Granddad is a fisherman happy to be away at sea from the household of women for most of the year. He’s a socialist with strong trade union views, whose only pleasure he seeks at home is to be left alone by the chatty women.

The story is told through the eyes of the girlish Agga, who spies on Freya and reports her findings to anyone who will listen. Her main confidante is Magnus, a decent policeman around Freya’s age, who seems to be attracted to her but never makes a move. Agga amuses him when she mentions that she suspects Freya killed her American husband.

Always enigmatic, even to Agga who follows her every move. Freya reveals that her best hope of happiness is to find a prosperous man and marry him. In Old Norse mythology Freya was the Goddess of Love, and the film character Freya’s subsequent actions are reminiscent of the heroine of the Icelandic sagas. Following through on her ambitions she lures Björn Theodor (Ferch), an eligible upper-class bachelor construction engineer and shareholder in the local fishing industry. He’s engaged to marry Birna, the daughter of the local magistrate, another member of the elite in town and his sweetheart from childhood. But Björn is attracted by Freya’s beauty and can’t see her dark side. They get passionate during the festivities on the National Day and carry that passion out under the racks of dried codfish. Then he leaves for Germany to finish his studies, and does not keep contact with her all winter.

When Disa’s abusive and drunken hubby dies in a house fire, Agga suspects her best friend Freya of starting it and tells this to the policeman. He shrugs it off with bemused laughter.

When Björn returns from his studies abroad Freya acts cool to his renewed advances, but their relationship is cemented after the spiteful Agga acts as a messenger delivering letters between the two with the express purpose of getting them together so that Freya can marry and move out of the house. Agga steams open the letters and replaces Freya’s chilly responses with warm ones. This leads to their marriage despite the objections over the vulgar Freya by Björn’s stuffy mother, a doctor’s widow (Olafsdottir).

Warning: spoilers in the next paragraph.

The marriage ends in tragedy, proving that Agga’s suspicions about Freya were correct; and, although she would like to see her punished for her crime, that would also mean punishing all the women she is close to in her family. Rather than do that, Agga takes back her accusation that she saw Freya murder Björn and that his death wasn’t an accident as her family reported. The policeman looks on with a puzzled look that says women are difficult to understand. As a result of this experience Agga suddenly matures into a woman (she becomes like the other women and conspires against men), even looking a little bit like Freya in the last shot, in this coming-of-age tale. The title is derived from the belief that justice has not been served and the seagulls must be laughing. Maybe the seagulls were, indeed, laughing, but I wasn’t.

The ambitious film is loaded down with too many characters and too many subplots to follow all of them with any sense of justice. It also suffers from highlighting too many generalities: the lower-class and the upper-class are always at war, women and men can never understand each other, and that being chic will make you happier than being garbed in unfashionable clothes. For those who like sitcoms with eccentric characters and are interested in melodramas set in unusual locations, they might take to this film in a stronger way than I did.

REVIEWED ON 1/24/2004 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”