A small, isolated town. A repressed, rather awkward and pathetic protagonist. Alcoholism. Incompetent fathers. Yep, what we have here is an Icelandic movie. It’s a somewhat isolated island where seemingly everybody knows each other (or is related to each other) and things can easily get awkward, so understandably we tell stories about stuff like that. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Paris of the North (París norðursins) is about Hugi (Björn Thors), a thirtysomething guy who teaches at an elementary school in Flateyri, a small and remote town in the westfjords of Iceland. Summer vacation has just started, he’s learning to speak portuguese and going to AA meetings, his girlfriend just dumped him, his best friend is a 10 year old kid (and his ex-girlfriend’s son whose father and grandfather are going to the same AA meetings as Hugi) and his long-absent father just popped in for a visit. What’s a man to do?
And that’s pretty much it. There’s no real plot speak of here. Paris of the North is a slice-of-life tale as well a tale of personal growth. It’s about dealing with oneself while also trying to deal with all the other problems that surround you. It’s about what life is all about: Being busy while making other plans. Life doesn’t have a plot.
Paris of the North is also about banality and boredom. The banality of everyday life, of chit chat and doing the same things over and over and going to the same places over and over. And the boredom of it all, the boredom of living in a small town with nothing to do.
Either Way, director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s debut film, is one of the best Icelandic films in recent years and was even remade in America by David Gordon Green as Prince Avalanche. That film was a breath of fresh air in Icelandic cinema, a film that had only two characters for most of it, one setting and no real plot and still managed to entertain with its charm and wit. It’s a good example how you can do a lot with very little (it was also made for almost no money).
In Paris of the North Sigurðsson has expanded his world and added some charactes but in many respects it’s a very similar film (though it was not written by Sigurðsson but Huldar Breiðfjörð, who’s mostly known in Iceland for his novels). Which does mean Paris of the North is a bit of a letdown as has a bit of a “more of the same” feel to it and isn’t quite as unique as Either Way. Either Way also had the 80s setting and a great 80s soundtrack while this one is set in modern times (though it still has a very good soundtrack mostly consisting of songs by the Icelandic band Prins Póló).
Paris of the North does get off to a rocky start and takes a bit of time to get going. There’s not much interesting going on in the beginning and it feels a little trite. But as it goes on you get into its rhythm and the story and characters gradually grow on you. It really kicks in when Hugi’s father appears but Icelandic actor and pop star Helgi Björnsson (he’s got an acting degree but he’s mostly known in Iceland as the lead singer of several bands he’s lead in the last 30 years or so). Björnsson is perfectly cast as an alcoholic loser who’s all about having fun and cutting loose, very much the opposite of his son.
The title is a bit of a mystery, aside from never being directly referred to the irony of it doesn’t feel very fitting either. It seems like they just couldn’t come up with a proper title and just went with something that sounded cool, even if it doesn’t exactly fit. As for the setting, while the movie does start with our hero jogging around the tiny village you never really get a clear sense of it, it just feels like any old small town in Iceland and the film definitely could have made better use with it, though the landscapes are still lovely.
But overall Paris of the North is what you might describe as a very “cozy” movie. Its flaws are not serious and it really is rather charming in its simplicity and lack of pretension. It doesn’t aspire for a whole lot and mostly meets its goals, but it still would have been fun if it would have tried to reach a little further.
The Good: The lovely music by Prins Póló.
The Bad: It’s a bit “been there, done that” and there’s really not that much going on.
The Icelandic: A protagonist whose best friend is the 10 year old son of his ex-girlfriend who is now dating the protagonist’s father, and whose ex-husband (and the boy’s father) is attending AA meetings with our hero (along with the boy’s grandpa). Only in Iceland would this not be implausible.