Friday, September 26, 2014
The simile is as apt as it is banal and predictable, the Icelandic director, Baltasar Kormakur's 2012 film, The Deep, is as pitiless and objective an episode from a saga. Iceland's sagas present hard-bitten, laconic protagonists battling inexorable forces -- often, the stories have the mysterious presence of a parable, except that it is very difficult to ascertain what, if anything, the parable means. In The Deep, Gulle, a chubby, chain-smoking sailor, parties on the night before going to sea on a fishing boat. Icelanders drink heavily and people pass out or vomit in alleys; Gulle wanders the streets of the fishing village in a short-sleeved shirt, mysteriously not suffering from the cold that everyone else feels. (Presumably, the alcohol has anesthetized him against the wind and falling snow). The village is on one of the Westmann Islands, formidable black chunks of obsidian sticking out of the arctic North Atlantic. The village is a grid of white lights and bare white buildings, all of them new, in a cleft in the volcanic rock -- the place had to be rebuilt when a volcano erupted nearby, destroyed the city, and forced the evacuation of the whole island, an event that Gulle later recalls vividly in flashbacks. The next morning, before the sun rises, Gulle boards a fishing vessel. The boat sails three miles from the harbor and casts nets into the churning sea. One of the nets gets entangled in a spike of subterranean basalt extruded by one of the recent eruptions. The men can't shut off the machine winch and the boat is pulled upside down. Except for Gulle, all of the fishermen drown. Gulle swims to shore, somehow avoids being battered to pieces in the mountainous surf crashing against the island's sheer escarpments, and, then, climbs up the cliff onto the plateau. The interior of the island is a desert of razor-sharp obsidian glass. Gulle is barefoot but he walks over the jagged shards of obsidian four or five miles, staggers down from the meadows where there are tiny, shaggy Icelandic ponies, and, leaving a trail of bloody footprints, reaches safety. No one can understand how Gulle survived: the water temperature was between 41 and 37 degrees and, yet, he managed to swim three miles in those conditions -- this feat is physiologically impossible. (We see hypothermia killing the other sailors within a matter of minutes, but Gulle was in the water for six hours.) The dead seamen are never recovered: an old man says: "Drowned fishermen are best to stay in their watery graves." Gulle's survival baffles the scientists and he is flown first to Rekjavik and, then, London to be studied. "Are you in good shape?" one doctor asks the fat, chainsmoking Gulle. "What do you think?" he says. In London, Gulle is put in a vat of ice-water with four Navy Seals, all buff with ripped abdomens and wearing tight little speedos -- Gulle, who is ashamed of his physique, wears a tee-shirt and underpants for the experiment. The Seals are pulled out of the ice-water in a few minutes, while Gulle just sits there, churning his legs, apparently indifferent to the cold. Gulle returns to home and visits the widow of one of his buddies who died in the shipwreck. One of the dead man's children asks him: "Are you a seal? Are you a troll? Are you some kind of sea monster?" Gulle says: "I'm just a man. A very lucky man." The film is shot efficiently and without any dramatic emphasis -- it's just one thing following another and the movie's tone is documentary. The Icelanders are stoic in the extreme -- no one weeps except one child (and, then, it's just a single tear); the widows and mothers are all dry-eyed. The pastor also chain smokes and he has no homily to explain the shipwreck or Gulle's miraculous survival. At sea, Gulle talks to a seagull, look up to see the northern lights flickering overhead, and hallucinates memories of the volcanic eruption. There is a slight suggestion that the volcanic fire has somehow tempered Gulle -- his memories focus on the eruption of the mountain nearby and the flows of magma destroying the fishing village. But this idea isn't developed in any systematic way. Gulle feels bad for drinking milk straight out of the bottle and owes money on his motorcycle --in the icy Atlantic, he says that he wants to apologize to his aging mother for the way he drinks milk and pay off his motorcycle; there's a girl that he would also like to see, although she lives in a house with a curtain always drawn over her window and we never see her. These seem to be his motivations for surviving. In the water, he swims the way that you and I might keep our head above the waves if we were castaways-- there's no Australian crawl, no discernible stroke at all, he just bobs there dog-paddling. In the end, someone says that Gulle probably survived because he was fat. Kormakur doesn't even accept this suggestion -- Gulle was lucky and as the old Icelanders say a man's life is only as good as his luck: so long as he is lucky, he survives; when he is unlucky, he dies. That's all there is. The film is based on a celebrated true story and, during the closing titles, we see the real Gulle, a plump, laconic man with curly hair in his white hospital bed: he also has no explanation for his survival. You make up your mind what, if anything, this means.