DIR/WRI: Benedikt Erlingsson • PRO: Fridrik Thor Fridriksson • DOP: Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson • ED: David Alexander Corno • MUS: David Thor Jonsson • CAST: Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Charlotte Bøving
It’s brave for a film to showcase illness and death in the manner Benedikt Erlingsson does here. And that he does so with a portmanteau film about men and their horses – set in the beautiful Icelandic landscape popularised by Walter Mitty – proves that cinema can utilise just about any subject matter to say something important if it tries. Whereas Michael Haneke’s Amour deals with old age and illness in an on-the-nose fashion, Erlingsson’s lens is horseriding, and the peculiar and beautiful relationships that form between men and their horses.
The caustic landscape kills. While Ben Stiller (meanwhile, in Walter Mitty) cycles inspirationally through the Icelandic hills, its fences, sea, and snows are picking off Of Horses and Men‘s inhabitants. In a culture that values perfect bodies and fetishises good health, the characters here stand out perhaps most for their declining health. Everyone has bad teeth. Characters suffer permanent life-altering injuries. Others die. Those who live do so in a state of perpetual depression. There’s one genuine smile in the film. And, for all that, the film is full of joy; because it celebrates that which makes life worth living. It celebrates that which encourages us to endure these misfortunes: humanity’s passions and obsessions. For Erlingsson and everyone who worked on this film, it’s horses.
Erlingsson wants his audience to know that nature doesn’t take us seriously. That’s why his cameras pan over magnificent mountains to find the film’s main character sitting on a horse while it has sex with another horse. His wife watches from the house. She’s heartbroken. He looks guilty. He looks like he does it a lot. Another character suffers a serious and permanent injury during a trivial and otherwise unimportant moment in his life. The whims of nature have no regard for human lives and relationships.
Of the current crop of “identity cultures” (LGBTQI* being a prominent and important one), one of those that receives little mainstream attention is that of the chronically ill. Cinemagoers are bombarded with images of physical perfection in just about every film they watch. Of Horses and Men could be perceived as a bubbling up of this tension. Here’s a film that takes traditional symbols of power and beauty; mountainous landscapes and horses; and shows us how they engage with illness, pain, and ugliness rather than merely acting as the tourist images they serve as in Walter Mitty.
The portmanteau nature of the film offers further relief. Like Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, the small tragedies and moments of pain or joy pile up. They have the cumulative effect of showcasing the pointlessness of human endeavour, and the inevitable and random tragedy that befalls even the most peaceful of lives. Although these characters own their horses, the power balance could just as easily be the other way around. The film attacks the idea that we have any control whatsoever over our environment, and it is refreshing to embrace that.
It is a credit to Erlingsson that he’s made one of the most violent films of the year without utilising a single weapon or action sequence. It’s a reminder that there needn’t be any grand quests, and there needn’t be any vengeance. Sometimes going for a walk is the deadliest act of them all.
Of Horses and Men is released on 13th June 2014