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It's a Nordic heat wave

The spring brings a flurry of Scandinavian films to L.A., projects marked by dry humor, wet snow and a fierce sense of independence.

March 07, 2004|Sorina Diaconescu | Special to The Times

The most memorable moments of "Noi the Albino," the gently comedic debut of Icelandic filmmaker Dagur Kari, pit man against spectacular, icy nature.

Clusters of prefab homes huddle awkwardly against vast expanses of white. A boy makes a dash through snow, his silhouette a swift, colorful fleck traveling under gray skies like the shadow of a dream.

"Noi," which tells the story of a teenage protagonist coming of age in a far-off Icelandic fjord, lands in theaters April 9. It is not the only current picture that employs an amusingly deadpan style to establish a mellow Nordic mood.

Last month's "Kitchen Stories," the second feature from Norwegian director Bent Hamer, grafts a droll bachelors' tale onto a similar backdrop of solitude, silence and snow. The elemental presence of the latter -- more abundant, various and velvety on screen than one could ever imagine -- provides an extra physical dimension to filmmaking and imparts a distinct sense of quiet and observant contemplation to the narrative.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 18, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Nordic movies -- In the March 7 Sunday Calendar section, an article on Nordic films incorrectly stated that Bent Hamer was collaborating on his next picture, "Factotum," with the godfather of American indie film, Jim Jarmusch. The collaboration is between Hamer and Jim Stark, a producer who has worked with Jarmusch.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 21, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Nordic movies -- In the March 7 Sunday Calendar, an article on Nordic films incorrectly stated that Bent Hamer is collaborating on his next picture, "Factotum," with the godfather of American indie film, Jim Jarmusch. The collaboration is between Hamer and Jim Stark, a producer who has worked with Jarmusch.

In fact, both "Noi" and "Kitchen Stories" seem concocted from distinct yet similar recipes that pair the icy cool of a Popsicle with the sweetness of a dream-pop song. Could it be that this characteristically Northern aesthetic is the latest cinematic contribution from Scandinavia's new crop of filmmakers?

"I'm not consciously trying to be Scandinavian," says 30-year-old Kari, who wrote and directed "Noi" after collecting ideas for it over a decade. He found inspiration came from American folk-punk musician Jonathan Richman and midcentury American author Richard Brodigan as much as the dramatic scenery of his native land.

Then again, Kari also believes the appeal of his yarn is more universal than local: "My experience has been that people from everywhere can relate to the story, because every country has a small town and a teenager who wants to break away. I was trying to create a universe that fit this film, so I borrowed the surroundings and constructed a new reality. It's a bit like Springfield from 'The Simpsons -- one policeman, one school, one taxi, one bar."

Indeed, one review of the film did describe his bald, smart-alecky protagonist as "Bart Simpson sprung to life." On screen, this goofball hero sports a wool cap pulled tightly over unnervingly fair eyebrows and spends his days ditching school to target-shoot gigantic icicles for kicks and drafting escape plans.

If "Noi" channels "The Simpsons" through the prism of a Nordic fairy tale, "Kitchen Stories" taps into similar satirical archetypes from an IKEA angle.

Using minimal dialogue and long, observant takes, the film details the travails of a pack of bureaucrats on the payroll of the '50s-era Swedish Home Research Institute who are on a scientific mission to map out the housework habits of bachelors from neighboring Norway's countryside.

A no-interaction covenant between each researcher and his grouchy research subject is initially strictly enforced, yet it gradually dissolves as observer and observed find themselves unwittingly bonding over such quintessentially Scandinavian tokens as fermented herring snacks and neat sips of vodka.

Alongside the filmmakers' personal imprint, the projects share a Scandi sensibility that can be distinguished even by those averse to thematic generalizations. "There are some general qualities that we share in Scandinavia, especially a kind of understated, dry sense of humor," says "Stories" director Hamer. "But first of all, there are individuals that are making films."

A rising cinematic force

With the slew of fresh offerings from Nordic countries finding their way into L.A. theaters, the spring promises to indeed be a Scandinavian season -- one that is rich in cinematic moods, styles and textures.

The tide of Scandi imports has been gathering momentum since the mid-'90s, when Denmark's back-to-basics film collective Dogme 95 reset the dial to the purity and exuberance of New Wave, transforming what was one of the most hopeless filmmaking nations into a European trendsetter.

That cinema of brazen ideas is still flourishing, most notably visible in the current projects of two Danish filmmakers. First-time director Christoffer Boe is set to soon launch "Reconstruction," his earnest, questioning look at cinema and its motives, while Lars von Trier -- founding father of Dogme 95 and a notoriously brilliant provocateur -- opens his latest intellectual tease, the misanthropic fable "Dogville," on March 26 in L.A. Two other Dogme alumni are resurfacing in March as well. The love story "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself" is Lone Scherfig's follow-up to her 2002 romantic comedy "Italian for Beginners," and the creepy fairy tale "Green Butchers" is the directing debut of hitherto celebrated screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen.

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