In 101 Reykjavik, named for a zip code in the frostbitten Icelandic capital, leisure activity is simply a function of seasonal affective disorder. In other words, faced with one endless subzero night after another, you might as well get smashed. As the film’s disaffected protagonist notes, “Even the ghosts are bored here.” Baltasar Kormakur’s debut feature fulfills the basic requirements of good slacker comedy: It’s grounded in quotidian tedium and frustration, and it acknowledges both the humor and pathos of the relevant coping mechanisms (here, lackadaisical flings, porn addiction, amnesia-courting binges). Twentysomething Hlynur (Hilmir Snaer Gudnason) is a textbook specimen of inert antihero. He lives with Mom, sleeps in well past noon every day, and has resolved to subsist indefinitely on unemployment benefits—a life mission he undertakes with purist zeal. (When pressed on what exactly it is he does, he’s only too happy to clarify: “The nothing kind of nothing.”) Turns out this lanky, bespectacled layabout is also an improbable ladykiller, in a Jarvis Cocker sort of way—and the film, at its best, packs the existential punch of a Pulp song.
A stage and screen actor (he starred in Fridik Thor Fridriksson’s Devil’s Island), Kormakur proves something of a showboat filmmaker, with a taste for bravura crane shots (one quotes Pola X‘s through-the-window prowl, another captures a confrontation that begins indoors and ends outside in a single flamboyant swoop). His narrative convolutions are not exactly subtle either. A Spanish flamenco instructor, Lola (Victoria Abril), shows up in this land of ice floes and snow flurries, and things immediately start to thaw. The score, by Blur’s Damon Albarn and ex-Sugarcube Einar Orn Benediktsson, duly supplies a cartoon-synth version of the Kinks’ “Lola,” and repeats it every five minutes henceforth. Abril seems to have been cast for the automatic Almodóvar echoes—to aid suspension of disbelief while Kormakur finagles an alternative-family fantasy by way of feel-good gender anarchy. Still, it’s telling (and in keeping with slacker-movie tradition) that Hlynur’s immobilizing ennui is more convincingly rendered than his reluctant trek toward adult responsibility.
The Monkey’s Mask opens at a poetry reading in a Sydney dive bar, where a young woman is reciting her latest opus. Staring into the video camera that we know will later provide a crucial piece of evidence, she administers the coup de grâce: “I wish my cunt could hurt you.” Her verse certainly does the job, as does every stupefying stanza about angry cocks and avenging vaginas in Samantha Lang’s sapphic murder mystery. The budding poetess—a nymphomaniac who fucked her way up the Sydney literary ladder—turns up dead; a leather-jacketed tomboy detective (Susie Porter) is hired to investigate and soon falls in lust with the girl’s married but omnisexually voracious professor (Kelly McGillis). Porter is required to narrate her quest in a steamy-noir voice-over (hardboiled, then dyed a deep Easter purple). Large chunks of dialogue and narration are lifted from the original verse novel by Dorothy Porter (no relation to the actress), which may or may not explain lines like “I never knew poetry could be as sticky as sex.”
The film seems dimly aware of its own ridiculousness, but it lacks the constitution for self-mockery. With her poised, clinical visual style (put to better use in her Grand Guignol psychodrama The Well), Lang could have polished The Monkey’s Mask to a late-night-cable luster and left it at that. Instead she forces the movie into the vicinity of arty revisionist exercise, though the harebrained script is barely able to reproduce genre conventions, let alone dismantle them. Having drained all suspense from her gimpy scenario, the director galvanizes the moment of recognition with a hardcore insert—call it a baise-toi. The identity of the murderer is beside the point; the real culprit is an incensed penis.