‘It always rains when you take the rain pants off.’
Of Horses and Men was Iceland’s entry for the foreign language Oscar 2014 and a rightful winner of other awards instead, including Best New Director at the San Sebastian Film Festival and six awards at Iceland’s 2014 Edda Awards. This is a film with multiple characters, multiple stories and multiple species. It is, in the main, about sex and death and horses and men and it is funny and tragic and occasionally shocking. More than that, it is also extremely odd and occasionally absurd. Helpful end of film spoiler – no horses were harmed in the making of the film.
Benedikt Erlingsson’s debut feature is set in a small Icelandic community, a group of people who live in a predominantly agricultural valley where everyone not only knows everybody else, they are also watching everybody else, peering across the stark landscape through binoculars, the tell-tale glint of the lenses in the sunlight ensuring that they are all aware that they are being observed. This includes the horses. Indeed showing the stories from the horses’ perspectives as well as the humans is one of the film’s novel highlights as the settings for each scene are often indicated by reflections in the eye of a horse. Indeed the need for love, sex and relationships affects the equine members of the cast (the first story initially hilarious but with a worrying conclusion) as much as it does the humans. Kolbeinn is as keen to tame and ride his horse across country as much as he desires his neighbour, whose own stallion has a rather large desire for Kolbeinn’s mare, and is willing to break through any fence and ignore any indiscretion in his lust for love, equine style. The community is not without its personal and territorial issues and barbed wire fencing is a cause of conflict between neighbours, Egill and Grimur, with disastrous consequences. Accidents and incidents take their toll on both horses and men and the local priest has his job cut out as the death count increases. Many of the stories incorporate a number of visitors to the remote community; there are multiple languages in addition to Icelandic, including Swedish, Spanish, English and Russian (a Russian trawler occasionally frequents the coast and is a good source of strong booze for those brave enough to meet it at sea). Some of the situations can be cruel and heart rending, others are hilariously funny.
From grassy valley plains to deep snow drifts, ice and rain showers, the environment is as intrinsic to the narrative as the characters, the community and the cinematography. The camerawork is fluid, with the scenes of horse-riding depicted in either crisp side tracking or direct-to-camera shots that place the situations in a clearly defined reality. A varied soundtrack of almost avant-garde folk and rhythmic elements coupled with some choral moments help emphasise the stories and situations.
Unique is a word that is overused with alarming regularity these days, but is entirely apt for this film. Highly recommended, Of Horses and Men depicts normality in all its surreal oddness. Romantic, funny, sad and mad, this is a wholly original cinema experience.