Moon upon moon ago, the editors at Le Monde, that bible for Paris’s hard Left, once ran a movie critique under the disconsolate headline “Why the Filipino cinema isn’t very interesting.” Even Le Monde, though, never managed the degree of canon-busting cosmopolitanism necessary to take on Icelandic cinema. Who had? Well, Icelandic cinema has now produced a remarkable epic, “Metalhead,” screened this week as part of Melbourne’s Scandinavian Film Festival.
“Metalhead”’s English-language title—the original Icelandic name is Málmhaus—represents no more than basic truth in advertising: its heroine is Hera Karlsdottir, who grows up milking cows in rural Iceland during the 1980s and 1990s. The defining event of Hera’s young life is the death during 1983, in an ingeniously horrible farming accident, of her elder brother and heavy-metal aficionado, Baldur. So overcome with grief is Hera by this tragedy that heavy metal ceases to remain a mere leisure pursuit and becomes in the most literal sense her religion.
Hera’s parents, staunch and conservative Lutherans whose idea of a bacchanalia comprises weekly church choir practice, react pretty much as might be expected to Hera’s theological iconoclasm, particularly when she proclaims herself to be a lesbian. Despite this announcement, Hera retains an occasional boyfriend of sorts: Knútur, who would be only too happy to marry her, but whose own conversational expertise pretty much begins and ends with livestock.
Drifting from job to job—at one point she broadcasts heavy metal through the public address system of the local slaughterhouse, with predictably adverse effects upon its hearers, whether biped or quadruped—and never quite daring to flee her agrarian prison (“How ya gonna keep her down on the farm, now that she’s seen Reykjavík?” doesn’t quite cut the mustard in any tongue), Hera at first hopes for salvation from the parish’s new and exceptionally handsome priest. Or if not for salvation, at least for some serious lovin’. Said priest turns out to be a fellow metalhead, with a tattoo to prove it, but for all his charm, politeness, and compassion … well, let’s just say that you can’t open a Lutheran seminary to homosexual candidates without certain adverse results in terms of satisfying schoolgirl crushes.
There follow various genuinely clever plot twists, one of which will remind cinéastes of the chilling climax to Japan’s black-and-white 1957 masterpiece “Snow Country” (based on the eponymous novel by future Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata). Still, whereas “Snow Country” concludes with an act of vengeful female destruction, “Metalhead”’s analogous act is but a single incident among many. In one scene, anyone wearied beyond endurance by sentimental Hollywood gambits of the “geek-pariah-makes-good-in-wildly-successful-musical-début” type will have good cause to fear “Metalhead”’s descent into that very cliché. But no, this cliché we are spared, just as we are spared the other feel-good formulas that periodically threaten.
The stark local milieu strangles feel-goodism at birth. If we are to believe “Metalhead,” Icelanders are—to quote Bertolt Brecht’s joke about Finns—“silent in four languages.” As per the cinematic norm to which Ingmar Bergman accustomed us, whole minutes tick by where no one bothers to say anything. This does not preclude a certain dour wit. At one stage, the spectacle of a bull pleasuring the nearest bovine female inspires predictably libidinous thoughts in hapless Knútur:
Knútur: I wouldn’t mind having a little bit of that.
Hera: You’ll have to ask my dad first. (Wintry pause.) It’s his cow.
Other discoveries to be made from “Metalhead”’s script (you read them here first):
- Whatever ecclesiastical austerities might prevail elsewhere in Scandinavia, Iceland’s Lutheran churches so abound in candles, paintings, and crucifixes, that you would think you were in County Cork, Palermo, or the Algarve, except the choral singing is 10 times better; and
- Even the plainest Icelandic grandmothers look like Jessica Mitford. If ever there was a Nordic equivalent for Meg Ryan’s “I’ll have what she’s having,” it must be the chatter at an Icelandic beauty salon.
Yet whether “Metalhead” will inspire in you a dumbstruck admiration, or will instill in you at around the 45-minute mark a frantic desire to quit the cinema and lock yourself in the nearest lavatory (even if said lavatory belongs to Oscar Pistorius), will depend to a huge extent on your attitudes concerning heavy metal itself. Certainly for this reviewer, “Metalhead” at first threatened to be a very long evening. There must be something to recommend heavy metal, but some of us have never been able to discern what that something might be.
Early exposure to Uriah Heep’s 1970 masterpiece Very ‘Eavy … Very ‘Umble—which drew from Rolling Stone critic Melissa Mills the mendacious promise that “If this group makes it, I’ll have to commit suicide”—did not prove for yours truly the moment of Damascene revelation that, doubtless, it should have done. As for Black Sabbath, the nearest to genuine sympathy that its members ever inspired in the Stove bosom was when Ozzy Osbourne found himself before a magistrate for shooting his cat, which had been sharpening its claws on the upholstery of Ozzy’s Rolls-Royce. Ozzy explained his felicide by simple economics: “The car cost 10,000 pounds. The cat cost 50p. There was no contest.”
Nevertheless, if the capacity for inspiring deranged enthusiasm in its adherents be a criterion for artistic value, then heavy metal indubitably ranks with Crime and Punishment, Tristan, and Gone With The Wind. For Hera and for the uncounted millions who share her obsession, heavy metal must generate the same sentiments that Somerset Maugham conveyed with wonderful persuasiveness in The Summing Up (1938):
What exactly is one’s reaction to a great work of art … when for instance one looks at Titian’s Entombment in the Louvre or listens to the quintet in Meistersinger? I know what mine is. It is an excitement that gives me a sense of exhilaration, intellectual but suffused with sensuality, a feeling of well-being in which I seem to discern a sense of power and of liberation from human ties; at the same time I feel in myself a tenderness which is rich with human sympathy; I feel rested, at peace and yet spiritually aloof. Indeed on occasion, looking at certain pictures or statues, listening to certain music, I have had an emotion so strong that I could only describe it in the same words as those the mystics use to describe the union with God. That is why I have thought that this sense of communion with a larger reality is not only the privilege of the religious, but may be reached by other paths than prayer and fasting.
So if push comes to shove, why not attend “Metalhead” in the spirit of comparative religion, Christopher-Dawson-style? At the very worst, the almost omnipresent scenic pulchritude will inspire in you the same sentiment which the late British journalist Barry Green uttered when marveling over Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” (1975) and its lush Hibernian landscape: “Too bad Kubrick ruined it by using actors.”
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.