Film Review: The Swan

An awkward debut film by an Icelandic director, 'The Swan' centers on a nine-year-old girl on her first summer away from home.
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Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir’s The Swan is set in Iceland, and follows Sól, a nine-year-old girl who spends her summer holiday working on a farm. At first, Sól is angry with her mother for sending her far from their home by the sea, but slowly she adjusts to her chores of herding the cows and feeding the chickens. She also resumes her habit of inventing stories about a girl, very much like herself, who wants to escape by sinking into the Earth. Were it not for a fine performance from the young actor, Gríma Valsdóttir, audiences may harbor similar feelings. Hjörleifsdóttir’s adapted screenplay is pitched too high, the dialogue all exclamation points.

The simplicity and wonder of Sól’s quest for identity is muddled by pretense, and by circumstances and subplots that are tangential to her. For instance, Iceland’s long summer days and midnight sun, the glacial landscape itself, is as much a character in The Swan as the girl, but Sól never finds any comfort in it. In recurring close-ups of her, the sun nearly obscures her visage. Other sequences celebrating the land, of a waterfall, a nearby lake, and glowing hills at sunset, in which Sól is absent, interrupt the narrative flow. The girl’s connection to the dramas of other characters who occupy the farmhouse are forced, Hjörleifsdóttir’s presence felt far more than that of her character.

Soon after Sól arrives on the farm, she awakens during the night to find a man sleeping on the bed across from her. He tells her he is there because water is leaking through the ceiling of his basement space—but Jón (Þorvaldur Davi Ðkristjánsson), a farmhand, never repairs the leak and remains in the room. The next day, Sól sees him masturbating. Bestial and lascivious, Jón also chases the farm family’s daughter Ásta (Þurí Ður Blær Jóhannsdóttir), who is pregnant and separated from her adulterous husband. Later, he comforts a homesick Sól by reading to her from his diary while he holds her close to him in his bed. Her girlish crush on him feeds his ego, but it is also apparent that he harbors sexual fantasies about her.

None of the adults sees a child at risk, nor does Sól mention this circumstance to her mother and, adding to the incredulity, her mother writes letters but never calls her. Soon, the adults begin confessing to Sól, often in rather graphic terms, their neurotic preoccupations. At one point, when Sól tries to comfort Ásta, she is rebuffed, but not before Ásta explains why she decided to get an abortion. By the time the unnamed farmer (Ingvar E. Sigurđsson) invites Sól for a boat ride, viewers may be convinced this is the moment when the girl will be raped. Instead, the farmer and Jón kill the calf that Sól helped to deliver a few weeks earlier, inviting her to watch them slit its neck.

If The Swan, named for a mythical creature of the lake, is Hjörleifsdóttir’s scathing commentary on Icelandic society, it is not obvious, in part because she loses control of the movie in those misty celebrations of the landscape. One afternoon, Sól discovers Jón and Ásta having sex in the barn and, feeling spurned, she embarks on a cruel backlash, seizing from Jón his one act of creativity, diaries that chronicle his seasonal stays on the farm. While it is difficult to blame the girl for it, the force of Sól’s emotions seems improbable in a nine-year-old. Because Hjörleifsdóttir fails to inspire the requisite empathy for her hero, audiences may even feel repulsed by Sól’s theft.

Sól dreams a great deal, and in her final reverie, Jón dies because she does not rescue him. In the film’s narrative, he disappears, too, and is presumed dead. Equivocal figures in the lives of heroes engaged in a quest for identity often vanish, signaling their loss of power over the hero, but Jón’s actual demise eradicates the metaphorical intensity of his disappearance. Sól’s rancor, and her culpability in Jón’s growing despair, also taints her nascent gift of storytelling, it having flourished from such violent emotions. If Jón is by turns rebarbative and insufferably egotistical, he is nevertheless a creative personality; like Sól, he copes by writing about his life, and her devastation of him is absurd.

The Swan actually resembles male quest stories, which are more sanguinary than those of female-centered narratives. Sól’s palpable retaliation for the wrongs committed against her, an act of vengeance, also suppresses the cathartic quality of her individuation. That significant scene is contrived, Hjörleifsdóttir racing to the denouement after the long brutality of life on the farm. It is marked by the sudden arrival of the legendary swan, whose steady gaze and aggressive behavior are yet another visual assault, not unlike the slaying of the calf—both are heavy-handed, literal illustrations of symbolic moments. It is the swan’s gaze, rather than the girl’s, that defines the moment.