Iceland’s official submission to this year’s Academy Awards, Benedikt Erlingsson’s eccentric equine comedy Of Horses and Men (2013) has finally been let off the reigns. A rural anthology of curious fables, Erlingsson uses the communion between humans and horses to depict and in turn attempt to understand Icelandic culture. By exploring the bond between man and horse, Erlingsson opens up a series of much larger questions. The film begins with what can only be described as an entirely unconventional love triangle. Solveig (Charlotte Bøving) is in love with the well-to-do Kolbeinn (Ingvar E. Sigurðsson). His true love is his Grana, an elegant colt with a graceful gait and icy white mane.
The trouble is, Grana has her eye on a neighbouring stallion. The whole community is obsessed with this romantic storyline, tuning in via binoculars as if this were some weekly soap opera. Each of Of Horses and Men’s stories focuses on a different horse and their owner. From an alcoholic villager who pursues a Russian trawler in search of vodka, to a Spanish tourist who takes a leaf from Luke Skywalker’s book when he finds himself stranded in a blizzard, each tale is bound to the landscape and enshrined by a theatrical touch of comicality. A laconic, lyrical script is peppered with subtle moments of absurdity to paint a twisted portrait of the director’s homeland. Set against the picturesque, ashen vistas of the Icelandic landscape, Erlingsson constructs a dense and multifaceted drama.
The film’s obvious selling point is its oddball humour, combining idiosyncratic, observational comedy, with a bizarre juxtaposition of ludicrous situations and wretched outcomes. These moments of farce detach us from our world and transfers us to Benedikt’s seductively strange portrait of Iceland, a seemingly foreign world a million miles from the homogenised cities and towns we’re accustomed to. A film enamoured, if slightly ashamed, by its subject, Of Horses and Men plays out like a whimsical celebration of Icelandic culture. However, the film’s darker, often violent moments of calamity, point towards an indirect form of social critique. Man and beast are shown as coexisting on a level playing field, their lives intertwined by love and death, played out against the beautiful topography of the Icelandic countryside.
The eye-catching thoroughbred horses on show are of extreme genetic purity, with no other breed of horse allowed upon the island. With this knowledge we understand how Erlingsson is attempting to demonstrate that each character’s behaviour is intrinsically linked to the land, something confirmed by the film’s indigenous score. By allowing nature to share in the spotlight, Erlingsson blurs the line between our natural instincts and our logical desires. His quietly remarkable Of Horses and Men provides a reflective and deeply profound farce to enjoy either as a series of absurd, beguiling fairytales or as a biting work of European satire.