Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hot and Cold

Film: Kjaerlighetens Kjotere (Zero Kelvin)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

There is something about extreme environments that seems to make drama happen almost naturally. A story that on its surface is fairly dull can be made interesting and fascinating simply by placing it in a location in which simple survival thanks to the environment becomes an issue. Such is the case with a film like Hans Petter Moland’s Kjaerlighetens Kjotere (Zero Kelvin). As the story unfolds about three men living together for a year, it becomes evident that there is a fourth character at work here: the snow-covered, desolate landscape of Greenland.

The film takes place in the 1920s and starts with newly published poet Henrik Larson (Gard B. Eidsvold) selling his little chapbook of poetry (and sweetening the deal with nudie pictures). This is a last hurrah for Larsen and his girlfriend Gertrude (Camilla Martens). This is because Larsen, with the hope of getting a book out of the deal, is heading to Greenland for a year. Here he will trap game, hunt, fish, and help create a motherlode of skins.

Also at the camp and doing a vast amount of the hunting and trapping is Randbaek (Stellan Skarsgard), who is in charge of producing all of the skins needed for his company in the course of the coming year. A scientist named Jakob Holm (Bjorn Sundquist) also works in this frozen wasteland, both conducting his own research and assisting Randbaek in his work.

Immediately, there is conflict, primarily between Randbaek and Larsen. We learn very quickly that Randbaek is precisely what he appears to be and less. He is a man driven entirely by his own particular needs, his own desires, and his own passions. His long time essentially alone in the wilderness of Greenland has turned him into something not simply base, but destructive. It is impossible for him not to attempt to harm. Throughout the film, in all situations (or at least in most), Randbaek does everything he can to tear down the beliefs, the lives, the hopes and dreams, and everything else he can grasp of those around him. There seems to be a perverse pleasure in him in destroying the hopes and dreams of everyone around him.

Larsen, as the new guy and as a poet, seems to be a perfect target for Randbaek’s abuse, and abuse is what Randbaek is good at. He is, among other things, an absolute treasure trove of disturbing profanity which he can’t help to spout at every opportunity. Anything that happens around him is cause for him to swear profusely and creatively, and to simultaneously blame on Larsen. Nothing Larsen does is good enough for him, in part because of the huge quota of skins and furs he must achieve and also in part because Larsen is not an experienced trapper or hunter.

And the abuse is constant. Randbaek appears unable to withhold his bile on anything that might conceivably get a rise out of Larsen, while Holm watches with a particularly Nordic passivity to the whole affair. Randbaek starts in at first with Larsen’s treatment of the sled dogs; essentially Larsen treats them like pets rather than work animals, and so Randbaek mistreats the dogs at every opportunity to ensure that they are subservient to him and know their place in what he considers the grand scheme of things. Additionally, he continually tweaks Larsen about Gertrude’s faithlessness, continually talking about how she is probably having sex with soldiers and suggesting a variety of sexual acts and positions that she may be engaging in while Larsen is away trapping furs on Greenland.

Naturally, this all ends badly. Randbaek can’t stop picking at Larsen, and Larsen himself can’t stop from retaliating as best he can to a bully who is more skilled and considerably bigger than he is. Eventually, Holm gets tired of both of them and leaves, taking some of the dogs and one of the sleds, hoping to get to another outpost where he no longer has to deal with the two men who seem hell-bent on driving each other around the bend. The terrible isolation and the awful landscape undoubtedly contribute to this constant battle of wills as well, and also contribute to Holm’s desire to escape these two men.

Kjaerlighetens Kjotere is a brutal film both in terms of how the characters act and in terms of the awful landscape in which they are placed. There is no warmth anywhere here—simply brutality and bullying until everything snaps and what has been slowly building becomes terrible and inevitable.

Despite this brutality, I found quite a bit to like here. The performances are excellent throughout. Skarsgard is particularly great, in no small part because he plays this broken brute of a man who can only attempt to break everything else around him to absolute perfection. Randbaek is a terrible character, a man with almost no positive qualities, and yet he is equally fascinating and compelling to watch.

This is not a friendly film, but it is one worth watching. Just don’t watch it around any kids who can read some of the disturbing subtitles.

Why to watch Kjaerlighetens Kjotere: White hot intensity, frozen landscape.
Why not to watch: Randbaek is a font of disturbing, awful profanity.

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