In Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men, the inhabitants of a remote Icelandic valley have emotions as tightly knitted as their jumpers – except when it comes to their swift-trotting, thick-maned horses.
In the opening scene we see the coat on a grey mare’s chest, caught in whorls and feathered by drizzle as her owner’s eye lovingly traces it. And then we see the owner himself, Kollbeinn, a middle-aged man in a tightly buttoned tweed jacket, reflected in the mare’s eye. “Darling,” he calls her, and “little lady.” When he smooths the coat on her back before hoicking her saddle on, it’s a caress. She will carry him across the valley to Solveig, the woman he’s in love with, at a spanking “tolt” that is watched covetously by the rest of the community through their binoculars and windows. “She’s no slouch, that mare,” Solveig greets him, before inviting him in for tea with her mother and son.
Left tied up outside, the grey mare acts on her own unihibited romantic inclinations, humiliating Kollbein – with grievous results for both herself and her lover, Solveig’s brown stallion.
There are six interlocking stories in this dark and comic Icelandic film, which won the 2014 Nordic Council Film Prize and the Brussels’ Golden Iris. In each, horses look on as humans commit all manner of sins of pride and folly, sometimes with disastrous consequences for themselves, and more often with terrible consequences for the horses. The dysfunctional, emotionally repressed humans are direct only when they are in pursuit of alcohol, which they sink like English foxhunters (from hip flasks, on horseback, and often). They would rather watch their neighbours through those binoculars than bare their hearts.
While they love their horses, what they love more is what horses can do for them: make them look desirable or masterful, get them vodka, humiliate their sexual rivals or take them home. The horses generally oblige them – even standing pacifically on a platform suspended from the hull of a Russian trawler at sea – but they cannot save them from their own idiocy, and sometimes, just by being horses, they ruin the best laid plans of their owners. The film’s humour can be tarry black: This wimp found the story of poor Juan, the Spanish tourist whose only crime was to wear a woolly hat and want to ride a horse, a little hard to stomach.
The characters are eccentric, but not grotesques: Erlingsson’s actors can convey a repressed emotion into the minutest gesture of the hand or widening of an eye. A woman announces her intention to seduce a man by flicking her pony tail out of her cagoule. Solveig’s eyebrows perform a small, expressive dance as Kollbein stands next to her and sweet talks his mare as Solveig wants to hear him whisper to her. A homesick Mongolian sailor called Genghis embraces a horse’s head tenderly, his face shining.
Throughout the six stories runs the busy rhythm of the tolt, matched by Icelandic folk music, and the spare and beautiful landscape, where sloping green valleys give way to crags of shifting, slatey rocks. The sea is frigid turquoise. The sky changes from mackerel clouds to pelting rain or a deathly blizzard.
Towards the end there’s a shift, and a lightening. People come together, and, fortified by alcohol, dare to reach for one another across the gaps between their horses. Cries of love making blur into those of horse herding. The film’s Icelandic title is Hross í Oss, which translates as “Horses and Us” – the similarities between the words in both English and Icelandic has the sealed-in wit of a palindrome or pun. We are horses, horses are us. And when we give up our stupid human inhibitions and wrongheadedness, and act a little more like horses, we find happiness.
Benedikt Erlingsson’s 2013 feature, Of Horses and Men, will be on general release here in Germany from February 19th on, as Von Menschen und Pferde, and is available on DVD in the UK and US.