DVD Review: Cold Trail (Köld slóð)

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Things That Go Norse in the Night: Whodunnit with a supernatural twist

Released in the same year as Jar City, Cold Trail took a very different path and provided further evidence that the nation’s filmmakers were intent on pushing the envelope.

Generously budgeted in comparison to other movies from the period, director Björn Brynjúlfur Björnsson’s first feature film is set in the inhospitable frozen wastelands of Iceland’s north. Equal parts locked room murder mystery, suspense thriller, and ghost story, Cold Trail mashes up familiar generic tropes and somehow produces an utterly idiosyncratic and uniquely Icelandic film experience.

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Reckless journalist Baldur Maríusson (Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson – 101 Reykjavik, Metalhead) is investigating a CEO accused of child molestation. In his eagerness to bag a front page exclusive, he neglects to fact-check the story and the newspaper is forced to issue a retraction when the wrongly accused CEO visits the office in a state of great distress. As he deals with the fallout caused by publication of his hastily written article another story breaks that will have profoundly personal ramifications.

The news that a dam worker has fallen to death is just another headline which will be examined by a colleague and swiftly forgotten about or so he thinks. After learning that the deceased was the father he never knew, Baldur sneaks into a morgue hoping to say goodbye. Discovering a puncture mark on the corpse’s chest he quits his paper and gets a job as a night watchman at the dam in order to unravel the truth about his father’s death.

Infiltrating the dam he finds a murky world of strange behaviour and dark secrets. Supposedly haunted by a worker who died during the building’s construction, he sees a figure in the corner of his vision and is unsure if an intruder has broken in or if his mind is playing tricks on him.

Working alongside his father’s former colleagues he learns unpalatable truths about the mysterious figure who chose to abandon his parental duties and live a booze-soaked life in a remote northern outpost.

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The best locked-room mysteries reward repeated viewings. Cold Trail‘s efficient screenplay pays homage to the genre and is packed with enough quirks to make it stand out as a distinctive film in its own right. Trimmed of fat and layered with a succession of clever setups, reveals, and red herrings, nothing is wasted in the script. Every line of dialogue and character action has added significance that only becomes apparent when the closing credits roll. Watch the film a second, or third, time and take delight in spotting clues and seeing how the film doffs a hat to the genre while successfully throwing other influences into the mix.

Björn Brynjúlfur Björnsson’s direction balances the need to convey intense claustrophobia while exemplifying the beauty and inherent danger of Iceland’s frozen north.

A spine-tingling thriller that will leave you feeling jelly-legged. Cold Trail is one of modern Icelandic screen crime’s foundation stones.

A subtitled DVD is available to order from Nammi.is

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DVD Review: Shadow of the Raven (Í skugga hrafnsins)

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One-time enfant terrible of the Icelandic filmmaking community and self-confessed anarchist, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson is an uncompromising auteur. Initially ignored in his homeland, he is now regarded as one of modern Icelandic cinema’s founding fathers.

His previous film, The Raven Flies, made history as the first Icelandic co-production with an international partner. Despite a muted domestic response, the film was positively received overseas. In addition to winning the award for Best Director at the 20th Guldbagge Awards, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s creative vision was recognized when the film was voted one of the decade’s most outstanding films by the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Despite a tortuous production which jeopardized the director’s health, his commitment to producing authentic Viking period films remained undimmed. A second film in the trilogy, Shadow of the Raven, was released in 1988.

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During his childhood, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson listened to his grandmother as she retold Sagas. A body of literature possibly unparalleled in European civilization. The Sagas are an intrinsic part of Icelandic society. Influencing modern-day storytelling, they are an early example of frontier literature. Documenting the life of settlers and their descendants in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Sagas are a collection of narratives containing blood-soaked accounts of feuds, doomed love affairs, fights, vengeance, and reconciliation. Passed down orally through successive generations before being preserved in the 13th century by monks using berry-ink and calfskin vellum. A sophisticated literary form, the Sagas predate the emergence of the novel and share many of its characteristics. Renowned as one of the masterpieces of world literature, they have been ranked alongside Homeric epics and the work of William Shakespeare.

During pre-production on The Raven Flies Hrafn Gunnlaugsson explored the possibility of adapting a Saga before deciding to craft an original story that retained the flavour of that impressive body of literature. When beginning work on Shadow of the Raven he once again drew inspiration from the Sagas. Fusing elements from several Sagas, most notably Njal’s saga, he blended an indigenous mythology with an imported legend, Tristan and Isuelt.

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Obscured by the legacy of Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s previous film, Shadow of the Raven is arguably the trilogy’s standout moment. Boasting more mature direction, greater set pieces, and fatalistic character sketches, the film is a haunting epic.

An avowed enthusiast of John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Akira Kurosawa, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson continues to pay homage to Samurai Films and Spaghetti Westerns while demonstrating an appreciation of Ingmar Bergman. Cine-literate, the director embraces his influences and demonstrates a highly distinct voice.

Returning to Iceland after studying theology in Norway, Trausti (Reine Brynolfsson) find rival clans feuding over a beached whale. The year is 1077, it is a transitional moment in Icelandic history. Christianity has officially replaced the old religion although some of its trappings still exist in Icelandic culture.

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As two clans go to war, Trausti’s mother is mortally wounded. Rival clan leader Erikur is slain and his daughter Isold (Tinna Gunnlaugsdóttir) inherits his property and position. Daughter of a woman who was executed for practicing witchcraft, she is raising an illegitimate child. Promised in marriage to the son of the Bishop of Iceland, the union will create the nation’s biggest clan.

Blaming Trausti for the death of her father Isold vows to kill him. Swayed by his compassion and honesty she plans a marriage that will diminish the Bishop’s power.

Potent and epic, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s version of the tale of star-crossed lovers draws from Norwegian and Icelandic versions popular in the 12th and 13th centuries. Set during the period documented by the Sagas, the increased role of the then new Christian religion in Nordic versions differentiated it from English and French variants. In Shadow of the Raven, it is given greater prominence as it is used to underscore the clash between old and new models of Icelandic society. Ravens and white veils are used as visual motifs to symbolize the values and morality of the old paganism and new Christian religion.

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Showcasing Iceland’s spectacular landscapes to great effect, the film uses imposing clifftops, geysers, waterfalls, and coastal regions as backdrop for an authentic recreation of the nation’s commonwealth age.

More than a historical drama, it is a complex tale of doomed love that also explore’s the futility of revenge and religion’s hypocrisies. Relatively unknown in English-speaking territories, the film is the most significant cinematic adaptation of the legend since Jean Delannoy’s L’Éternel retour.

A subtitled DVD is available to order fron Nammi.is

Desert Island DVDs: Caro Ramsay

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Govan-born Caro Ramsay has written seven dark and gruesome books in the Anderson and Costello series. A trained osteopath, she runs a large practice in the west of Scotland treating humans and animals.

Caro started writing her first novel while recovering from a back injury. Shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger and longlisted for the Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year, her books have been widely praised.

She lives in the west of Scotland and shares her house with a staffie, a cat, and a poltergeist called Agnes.

‘It’s not an easy thing to choose only five of the DVDs that you can watch over and over again. I started off with a short list of three and then cut it down to ten – imagine leaving out Lars and the Girl, Perfect Sense and The Hitchhiker’s Guide…). I may also have changed the question. Maybe not the ones I watch most often but those that have stayed with me, those I pay attention to, or those I think, ‘I wish I’d thought of that!’’

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Wallander – “One Step Behind” (Sweden, 2005)

‘First up has to be Wallander. Henning Mankell is my dogwalking audio companion. The ‘Wallander’ I would pick is Krister Henriksson, my favourite episode would be “One Step Behind”. It’s beautifully filmed with the teenagers in eighteenth century fancy dress sitting on midsummer’s evening. Then they get shot. Dead. There is everything in this film but at its very basic level, it’s a pure detective story.’

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Gosford Park (UK, 2001)

‘Gosford Park! What can you say? I see it is a pure homage to Agatha Christie. It’s the shooting party, it’s 1930 and there is a dead body in the library. The cast list reads like a who’s who of the British film industry (plot spoiler – and as a Scot I said at the very start that’s the very worst Scottish accent I have ever heard). he screen play was written by Julian Fellowes who then went on to write Downtown Abbey. I love the caustic wit of the film.’

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Aimee and Jaguar (Germany, 1999)

‘This was released in the UK in 2001 set in Berlin 1943/44 with the wife of a Nazi officer falling in love with a courageous Jewish woman. The whole atmosphere is one of friendship and love trying to achieve some semblance of order and of everyday life when the world seems to be going mad around them. It’s based on the real life story of Lilly Wust and was a book before it was adapted as a film. It manages to be uplifting and totally depressing at the same time.’

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The Singing Ringing Tree (East Germany, 1957)

‘The famous children’s film made in East Germany in 1957. It was shown as a TV series here and is one of the most frightening things I have ever seen. (Indeed in a Radio Times readers’ poll it was voted the twentieth most frightening programme ever …and it was made for children.) I think all crime writers like the idea of the troll under the bridge that can leap out and kill you at any moment and the idea that the bear might have a truly beautiful personality underneath (if he then morphs into a handsome prince so much the better). It is worth watching with adult eyes and just wondering how robust the psychology of East German youth was at that time. It’s all very grim – very Brothers Grimm.’

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The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (UK, France, 1989)

‘And I’ve kept my favourite until last.

This is my favourite Peter Greenaway film. It has food, sex, murder, torture, cannibalism, but at the end of the day the meat loving, book hating, violent gangster gets his comeuppance by the quiet reader who sits in the corner. It is a beautiful film to watch and as a lifelong vegetarian it questions a lot of our attitudes. Peter Greenaway said ‘If you want to tell stories be a writer, not a filmmaker’ and he describes critics as ‘like haughty barren spinsters lodged in a maternity ward.’’

Iceland Noir booking information.

Caro Ramsay is published by Severn House Publishers

Desert Island DVDs: Jónína Leósdóttir

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Novelist, playwright, and journalist Jónína Leósdóttir started her career writing for a weekly newspaper. She later became editor of the weekly newspaper Pressan and assistant editor of a women’s magazine. Her first novel was published in 1993. Recipient of several awards including the national poetry award, she has been writing full-time since 2006. Published in Iceland and Germany, Jónína has written fifteen books.

Making history as the first same-sex spouse of a head of state, in 2013 she wrote a book about their relationship. Interviewed by Women’s Hour and The Telegraph she spoke about challenges they faced and inspiring others to embrace their sexuality.

Her debut crime novel, Shudder, introduced readers to Edda, an Icelandic Miss Marple. Recently retired and returning from a trip to the Canary Islands, Edda receives a letter from the son of a German penpal asking for assistance locating his mother. A sequel, The Girl Nobody Missed, will be published later this year. Jónína will read extracts from the Edda novels during the Iceland Noir walking tour of Reykjavik.

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‘I very rarely watch films or TV-series more than once. No matter how much I enjoy the material, the next time I always look for something new. Therefore, I would have a hard time on a desert island with only five things to watch, over and over again, and would need to choose extremely carefully.’

‘Although The Sound of Music was released in 1965, it wasn’t shown in Iceland until 1968. At that time I was 14 years old and addicted to anything romantic, so that film really hit the spot. I couldn’t get enough of it and saw it several times at the cinema in a matter of a few weeks. It is still the film I have seen most often.’

‘Many years later, someone summed me up as a person who had never returned to ground after seeing The Sound of Music. In other words, that I was a romantic fool and unrealistic in believing that in the end, good would always conquer evil. So, stranded on a desert island, I think that would be a good film to watch regularly.’

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‘To make me laugh, I would probably pick the classic Fawlty Towers (a complete set, of course), Educating Rita or The Calendar Girls. This is the hardest category to fill, as jokes tend to stop being funny when you have heard them before. Therefore, the comedy would have to have a bit of depth, too.’

‘I have never laughed so much or so loud, as I did when I saw The Calendar Girls. My mother and my wife, who were with me at the cinema, shrank in their seats with embarrassment. But I would probably end up picking Educating Rita, as I find the story so endearing and both Julie Walters and Michael Caine are perfectly cast. Actually, I saw them in the play in the West End, before the film was made.’

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‘If there is such a thing as a box-set of all Mike Leigh films, I would not hesitate to take that with me to a desert island. (Yes, I know that is a bit greedy.) I think I have seen all his films and I find them absolutely wonderful. What an amazing director … the actors all seem to be totally unaware of the camera and the dialogue comes across as incredibly effortless and realistic.’

‘My top favourites are Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake, and Abigail’s Party is extremely amusing.’

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‘For Drama with a capital D, I would definitely choose Priest – not the more recent film with that title, but the one written by Jimmy McGovern from 1994. It is about a young Catholic priest struggling with his sexuality and an older priest, played by Tom Wilkinson, who has little problem with his conscience about his affair with the housekeeper. I simply love this film.’ 

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‘Finally, something criminal and thrilling is a must. But that would be a struggle, too, as I would be torn between two series: The Bridge (Danish/Swedish) or River (UK). Both series gave me such pleasure. The main characters are so flawed and lovable, the actors are fantastic and the cinematography amazing.’

‘When The Bridge series were on, I watched each episode on Danish TV on Sunday evenings and then again on Icelandic TV on Mondays, because I didn’t quite catch all the dialogue in Danish/Swedish.’

Thanks to Jónína Leósdóttir and Iceland Noir.

Iceland Noir booking information.

Desert Island DVDs: Annamaria Alfieri

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Annamaria Alfieri is the author of three historical mysteries set in South America. Her current series takes place in British East Africa, now Kenya, beginning in 1911. The Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch described her Strange Gods as having “the flair of Isak Dinesen and Beryl Markham, the cunning of Agatha Christie and Elspeth Huxley and the moral sensibility of our times.” The second in this series, The Idol of Mombasa is just out. Alfieri is also, along with Michael Stanley, the editor of the new mystery/thriller anthology Sunshine Noir, which Peter James called “a gem of an anthology—a whole new movement,” in crime fiction.

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‘My passion is historical fiction. The mysteries I write take place in times past and often in remote places. So it is no surprise to me that I am drawn to the same kinds of stories when it comes to movies and television. Hence, my pick for the best of the best, when it comes to TV series, is Foyle’s War. For me it has everything. Nothing tops it.’

‘The series takes place in Hastings, on the English coast beginning in 1940, just as World War II is getting underway in earnest. The main characters are a trio led by DCS Christopher Foyle, an experienced detective, a WWI veteran, who wants nothing more than to have a serious job with the government in fighting the war. But his superiors insist that he is more valuable solving crimes, and aren’t we glad of that. His sidekicks in this effort are Samantha Stewart, a driver seconded to him from the women’s military corps and a partner who is a clear thinking policeman daunted by the fact that he lost a leg in Britain’s first military disaster of the war, in Norway.’

‘The creator and writer—Anthony Horowitz—gives us carefully drawn characters and twisty, surpassingly engaging plots. But he never gets overly precious with the surprises. Just enough to keep us guessing. Like all good historical fiction, these great stories are wrapped around legendary events—such as the evacuation of Dunkirk. Each episode focuses on a different aspect of life on the English home front during wartime. Oh, the events we expect to see are all there—the Blitz, the food shortages, the evacuation of children. But the show is much more than that. There is just enough hope and glory for us to admire the brave lads in their Spitfires fighting fascism. But we also get an unblinking look at home-front hanky panky of everyday Brits, attacking innocent German and Italian immigrants, looting bombed out factories, stealing priceless works of art as they are being moved from threatened London into safe keeping in Wales. There is just enough romance in the stories to give us a bit of relief from wartime tragedy. The underlying social issues cross the gap of decades—generational antagonisms, sexual politics, class warfare. And like all good historical fiction, the stories reflect what’s on our minds today, politically and socially.’

‘The art direction is superb. The period set decoration is perfection, and the episodes are worth watching for the scenery alone—like the vintage cars and especially the buses, the half-timber houses, the thatched cottages. Great direction, camera work, Foyle’s War has it all. Each episode, on its own, reads like a good film.’

‘The tales are character driven and the acting is superb. Led by the incomparable Michael Kitchen, who can say more with a close-up of the look in his eye or the slightest twist of his mouth than most television actors can say with twelve lines a dialog. His co-stars are up to the mark: Anthony Howell, as Foyle’s sergeant –Paul Milner, Honeysuckle Weeks, as Samantha Steward—Foyle’s driver, and Julian Ovenden as Andrew, Foyle’s son. All perfectly cast and unforgettable in their roles. (I confess that when Ovenden showed up as one of Lady Mary’s suitors in Downton Abbey, I said, “Oh, look. It’s Andrew Foyle.”)’

‘At one point, one the characters looks at the series DCS and demands, “What sort of world is this, Mr. Foyle?”’

‘The sort of world this series creates is one that recounts history without letting the background get in the way of great detective stories.’

Runners Up for my choice:

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Endeavour

‘The prequel to the ultra-popular Inspector Morse series. Another historical offering, if you can call the 1960’s historical. The third episode of Season One—“Fugue”—is my pick for the best episode of a detective series ever.’

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Inspector Montalbano

Based on the totally engaging mysteries series by Andrea Camilleri, these shows bring the brilliant Montalbano to the small screen along with great bonuses of realistic, yet wonderfully attractive actors, gripping plots, and oh, so gorgeous Sicilian scenery. The stories move like lightning. The food described is mouth watering. The people have a YUM factor all their own.’

Thanks to Annamaria Alfieri and Iceland Noir.

Iceland Noir booking information.

Annamaria Alfieri is published by White Sun Books and Felony & Mayhem

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Book Review: The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson – The story of the Barbary corsair raid on Iceland in 1627 (Trans by Karl Smári Hreinsson and Adam Nichols)

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In the summer of 1627 Algerian pirates descended on Iceland. Docking at Heimaey, a small island 7.4 km off the coast of Iceland, the pirates pillaged and plundered, destroyed the church, burnt farm houses and killed thirty-four people. 242 islanders were captured and transported to Africa where they were sold as slaves.

Reverend Ólafur Egilsson was one of the first to be enslaved. Born in the same year as William Shakespeare and Galileo Galilei, at the age of sixty his unshakeable religious convictions were tested when he suffered intense beatings during the voyage to Algiers. On land, the pirates executed those who made the sign of the cross or prayed, including a priest. Ólafur Egilsson was signaled out for extreme forms of punishment because he was a Lutheran minister. Routinely whipped by a rope, he was close to death when the ship reached Africa.

Ólafur Egilsson’s pregnant wife and children were also transported. After eleven days at sea, Ólafur’s wife gave birth to a boy. The child was immediately declared to be pirates’ property.

Brought ashore the captured Icelanders were taken to the slave market. Ólafur’s eleven-year-old son was taken by the Sultan’s representative. The rest of the family was taken to a house and Ólafur was put to work. He would never again see his son, Egill.

Conditions were harsh, many Icelanders perished due to overwork, heat exhaustion, and beatings.

Summoned by an official, Ólafur was ordered to visit Copenhagen and ask the King of Denmark to pay a ransom for the captives’ freedom. Iceland was at the time under Danish rule. The priest embarked on a long and tortuous journey to petition the King, unaware that the state’s finances were exhausted after the Thirty Years War.

A classic example of seventeenth-century Icelandic literature and a historically important captivity narrative, The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson remained untranslated into English until 2008. A new edition published by Catholic University America Press contains several letters written by Icelandic captives detailing their experiences as slaves in Africa.

Documenting a tragic event, the book also provides invaluable detail about Muslim and post-Reformation Christian societies in the seventeenth century.

The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson is filled with sorrow and torment. Ólafur Egilsson’s moving account of an intense personal tragedy is an enriching read.

The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson is published by Catholic University America Press.

Desert Island DVDs – Alex Gray

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Scottish author Alex Gray was born and educated in Glasgow. The city provides the backdrop to her crime novels. Recipient of the Scottish Association of Writers’ Constable and Pitlochry trophies for her writing, she is the co-founder of the Bloody Scotland international crime writing festival.

Previously a civil servant and a teacher, she has been writing professionally since 1992.

Her debut novel, Never Somewhere Else, won the Constable prize. She has published thirteen novels featuring DCI Lorimer and psychological profiler Solomon Brightman. Praised as ‘the new master of Scottish crime writing’ by the Scottish Daily Express. The Daily Mail recognised that she ‘Brings Glasgow to life in the same way Ian Rankin evokes Edinburgh.’ Her most recent book is The Darkest Goodbye.

Ahead of her appearance at Iceland Noir, Alex Gray talked about the European films that have left a lasting impression on her.

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‘The five European films that would comprise my desert island DVDs are mostly from the sixties when I was an avid teenage cinema buff.’

‘One of my favourites, and one whose music still makes me feel warm and happy, is the 1966 French film, A Man and a Woman. It is a love story with a poignancy, the man and woman having both lost their partners; one to suicide and the other to a tragic accident. Meeting through their children’s school, they fall in love but it takes time for both to leave their pasts behind and wholly embrace a future together. The tentative beginnings of this new relationship are beautifully portrayed and one of the memorable lines occurs after their first dinner date together when Jean Louis is asked by the patron if there is anything else he would like and he looks across the table at the woman he is beginning to adore then replies, “Une chambre.”

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‘From love and adoration to sex, pure and simple. Or perhaps not so simple as Catherine Deneuve’s portrayal of Belle de Jour, the 1967 film that has become a classic., is complex to say the least. The story of a young, bored housewife who finds no sexual satisfaction from her husband and turns to high class prostitution is well known. But how many recall that strange ending when the wife seems to be happy once more with her healthy and sexually adept husband, having seen him shot and crippled? Was it all a fantasy or is there a human metaphor here? It really doesn’t matter as Deneuve is such a brilliant actress and the entire film had its bizarre moments that French films of that era thrived upon.’

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‘1969 saw the release of Pier Paolo Paolini’s Pigsty, a film that had such a profound effect on me that I went home and wrote a poem that was highly commended in a University competition.’

‘There are two parallel stories in the film; one in a past time where a young man turns cannibal, his memorable line being, “I killed my father, I ate human flesh and I trembled for joy.” ‘

‘The second storyline concerns the Third Reich and 1960’s Germany where a young man prefers his relationship with pigs to that of his fiancée but he is eaten by them.’

‘The dramatic cinematography shows the human capacity for destruction and the choices people make in society, harking back to the Nazi persecution of the Jews in a symbolic fashion.’

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‘The final two are sequels, Jean de Florette, (1986) and Manon de Sources starring the iconic Gerard Depardieu as the hopeful farmer whose life is destroyed by his ambitious neighbours as they stop up the spring that waters his land in spite at having failed to obtain it for themselves. Emmanuelle Beart plays Jean’s daughter in the second film and her revenge upon the two schemers is all the sweeter as the younger one has fallen in love with her.’

‘There is something rather beautiful about the character of Jean and his downfall at the hands of his enemies and the disregard of the townsfolk who never step in to help him is heart breaking.’

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‘If I were to count the last two films as one then my other choice would be the 1997 Italian film, Life is Beautiful, directed by and starring Roberto Benigni. The story of the Jewish Italian bookshop owner who saves his son from the horrors of a German concentration camp is completely moving but the beginning of the film that shows his love for Dora and how he wins her heart prevents this being a film that is sheer misery. Because it is not that at all; it is a moving account of just how life can be beautiful and brave and free even against colossal odds.’

‘If I am stranded on a desert island these films would keep me company, entertain me and make me glad to be alive.’

Thanks to Alex Gray, Little Brown Group, and Iceland Noir.

Iceland Noir booking information.

Alex Gray is published by Sphere.