By Mark Asch
At Cannes 2015, an Un Certain Regard jury headed by Isabella Rossellini awarded its top prize to Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams, a film about the congenital stubbornness of Iceland’s aging rural population which, with its agricultural wit and final shot of feuding twin brothers in a symbolic return to the womb, reached for a “universal” earthiness. The County boasts significant international financing and, at least abroad, an English-language title card, but its subject matter is an almost comically local choice for a follow-up: the monopolistic practices of Iceland’s farmers’ cooperatives, and the price of milk.
Sheep farmers are boys, cow farmers are girls: Ingibjörg (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir, an Olivia Colman look-alike with the same absolute ugly-cry conviction) and her husband Reynir (Hinrik Ólafsson) live on Reynir’s family’s dairy farm in the fictional district of Erpsfjörður (the film was shot around Hvammstangi and Búðardalur, in the northwest of the country). The existential peril of the rural lifestyle in the face of changing times is the foundational concern of the Icelandic cinema, but here, Inga and Reynir’s children have already moved away. With talk of Amazon (globalism) and summer cottages (tourism) in the air, it’s a question of when, not if, the farm will shut down—though Ingibjörg, suddenly transformed through trauma, becomes an answer to the ornery homesteader of Halldór Laxness’ national epic Independent People, or perhaps to the mythically self-monikered “Mountain Woman” eco-terrorist of the more recent Woman at War. Despite the farm’s looming post-recession debts, she takes on the cartel-like behaviour of the Erpsfjörður Co-operative, waging a one-woman war in the form of screeds on Facebook (which are immediately, and believably, picked up by the evening news), and then continuing the struggle by other means. The Co-op’s heavy, with his Mercedes SUV, big-sour-baby face and slicked-back hair, bears a surely intentional resemblance to former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, under whose stewardship Iceland’s old Co-op-affiliated Progressive Party (translated here as the “Agrarian Party”) rose to power as Euroskeptic populists, but who then saw his governing coalition collapse when his family’s offshore accounts were revealed in the Panama Papers (a spectacular flameout which is not in The Laundromat, alas and alack), and has subsequently moved on to other humiliations.
Shooting in winter, when it’s cold, wet, and dark early, in locales which are hardly #InspiredbyIceland, Hákonarson maintains Rams’ focus on the grimy and tactile right from the opening scene: the real birthing of a calf, with pull chains and all. Milk and manure are not just commodities whose flow the Co-op controls, but also real, sticky substances which Ingibjörg throws back at them (literally). The remoteness of place—and of time, outside of tourist season—and focus on unglamorous folkways may represent its own kind of exoticism, but The County’s location scouting and production design is defiantly rooted in place. Here, low concrete outbuildings with rusting corrugated steel roofs are tossed piecemeal across valley floors around chintzy, wood-panelled farmhouses, where even the rugged traditionalists make use of automated milking equipment, wear waterproof snowsuits over their lopapeysur, and listen to music only an Icelander would treasure, but anyone might learn to love.