Northern (dis)comfort (2024)

Northern (dis)comfort

de Ramona Aristide/

  • Film reviews

23 November, 2023

Released at SXSW, the new black comedy signed by Icelandic script writer-director, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, Northern Comfort tries to be a film about the state of the world, a satire of the upper classes whose gaze towards the phenomenon of flight phobia is at times empathetic, at others condescending. The film’s premise is a fruitful one: a special forces veteran turned bestselling writer, a real estate developer, and an introverted IT worker accompanied by his influencer girlfriend participate in a costly flight course that has the pseudo-motivational title of “Fearless Flyers”, taught by an enthusiastic, yet incompetent instructor, whose final test consist in taking a flight from the UK to Iceland.

Even though the flight is designed following cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) by way of exposing passengers to their phobia, the experiment ends up as a miserable failure due to unforeseen flight conditions. The extremely scared passengers do end up landing in Iceland, where they are forced to stay overnight at a luxury hotel where, one by one, they all end up getting stuck in a whirlpool of unfortunate accidents that only exacerbate their defense mechanisms and flight for survival. In fact, the premise is so fruitful that the film ends up getting lost in the directions that it tries to go down, and ends up constantly sabotaging its narrative coherence. The events that the characters go through don’t seem to lay the basis for any relevant catalyst towards their development or that of the plot, the gags turn into a fiasco due to how dissipated narrative threads are crammed together, and the black humor comes across as rather pale, since the jokes, in turn, also have suffered from a forced landing.

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The fact that the script (written in collaboration with Halldór Laxness Halldórsson and Tobias Munthe) spares us of the existential conversations that might have derived from the characters’ fear of facing death, which is the immediate synonym of flight fear, is something laudable (although, in one interview, the director labels the film as an existential comedy). The story’s internal mechanics try to disguise tragedy as comedy, which is somewhat problematic because it ultimately implies a superficial view of some characters that are turned into topical stereotypes. It’s not clear whether the intention is to expose a series of social problems from a neutral point of view or to condemn and ridicule them. What is clear is that, no matter the intention, it manages to slip towards the latter option. There are more than enough moments that end up being cringe, which usually overplays a given sexual content: the glossy girl candidly confesses that she gets her followers by monetizing her sexy derriere on Instagram; the mustachioed cargo fleet pilot tries to pick up Sarah (Lydia Leonard) at a bar in a sample of exhibitionism that is not at all credible, as he shows her explicit photographs of himself before even getting to know her; the gay sexual moment between the IT guy and the macho tech entrepreneur is terribly flimsy in terms of interaction because it’s not clear whether the first is willing or simply incapable of refusing things due to his people-pleasing tendencies; and the confusion is not solved at all, because the narrative ends up opening yet another thread, as the scene is violently interrupted by veteran Edward (Timothy Spall) in an absolutely mechanical and absurd scene. In every case, the actors are either insufficiently present, either hysterical or theatrical due to this injection of adrenaline and anxiety towards that which cannot be controlled, which leads their reactions to come across as artificial, lacking performative consistency, the only exception being the illustrious Timothy Spall.

Still, the film’s most unfortunate choice, by far, is its decision to create a classical soundtrack based on the works of Vivaldi, something which should have served, at most, as a counterpoint to the narrative. Instead, the attempt to induce narrative tension through an artifice like this proves to be all the more miserable. Nor do the natural phenomena of Iceland, which are shot in a relatively creative fashion by Danish DOP Niels Thastum, that relays the film’s general sensation of claustrophobia, don’t manage to steal the show to the degree that they could save the film from its slip into intellectualized kitsch, attempting to reveal the extreme confrontation between man and nature à la Force Majeure (2014, dir. Ruben Östlund), an excellent opportunity to explore interhuman relationships that Sigurðsson crudely skips. Besides, the influence of Östlund seems pretty manifest; Northern Comfort has a lot of similarities to last year’s Palme d’Or winner, Triangle of Sadness (2022). And although I wouldn’t be quick to praise the Danish director’s latest film, because he also buries his grandiose aims in self-evident truths and tropes, I’d still say that it is way above this one, even if only for the fact that it arranges its acts cohesively, allowing spectators to infer an articulated feeling or vision, whereas Sigurðsson’s offering seems to succumb under the weight of its neurotic acrobatics.

Grosso modo, I’d say that no single direction is explored satisfyingly, but rather, they’re hurriedly touched for the sake of correct politics: from endemic narcissism to the male ideal in the tech industry, gender stereotypes, toxic masculinity or heteronormativity, the film misses most opportunities to make ingenious (or, at the very least, pertinent) comments, as it mistakes farce for idiocy. If disappointment could be measured, I think it would easily match the film’s budget.

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Ramona Aristide

Film critic. She graduated from Filmology at UNATC. She writes and sometimes moderates discussions.

Northern (dis)comfort (2024)
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