Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In the Land of Ice and Snow

Since Marvel will be crowding the multiplex with spandex-clad fascists for the foreseeable future, there's no better time to go exploring the fringes of NetFlix. Which I did, and I discovered a great little Norwegian gem.

Escape, or Flukt in its native tongue, is a brilliantly harsh film. Its premise is as simple as its title - girl sees her family murdered, tries to get away from bandits - but like a good found footage horror film, execution is everything. This is a naturalistic tale of survival, without sentiment or neat moral lessons. While the heroine, young Signe, is our entrance into this world she is more part of it than the soft and comfortable place we the audience inhabit. Signe is sympathetic but she never conforms to modern norms of right or wrong because to do so would be suicide.

We're introduced to Signe, her parents, and her little brother as they're traveling between villages. This is a textbook case of efficient exposition as just a few words and glances establishes the emotional bond of this little family before all hell breaks loose. Seems these tiny migrations were common at the time - early 14th century, which in Norway looks to have still been the Dark Ages - and massacres by bandits were just as normal. And so it goes with first Signe's mother, unceremoniously dispatched by an arrow. Her father soon follows, after a courageous if sloppy last stand against superior numbers and weapons. Bandit leader Dagmar - the brilliantly cold Ingrid Bolsø Berdal - dispatches Signe's little brother with an efficient crossbow bolt. That's the theme of the entire openeing, the cold efficiency of the bandits after the warm and homey establishing shots of Signe's family. And it quickly pulls the audience into the Norwegian McTeague that is the rest of the film.

There's the immediate tension surrounding Signe of course. Will they kill her? Sell her into slavery? Rape her? One particularly nasty bandit keeps trying that third option, only to be shouted down by Dagmar and even the men. At a time when feminist critique of the arts is seeing a resurgence this is a particularly poignant film - Dagmar, a woman in the Middle Ages, leads this motley band of cutthroats and is clearly feared by them. Signe, though at first a helpless damsel, frees herself and strikes back at her captors with only the help of another little girl, whom Dagmar has adopted.

That little girl, Frigg, provides some much needed humanization for the bandits. Coming across a bearded hermit who delivers backstories, as bearded hermits are wont to do, Signe learns Dagmar was once a perfectly respectable wife and mother until the day witch-hunters drowned her daughter and smashed the fetus out of her. While it could be maudlin, this flashback serves to explain Dagmar's motives, at least concerning her manic desire to reclaim Frigg, but also shows how even in this brutal world people are not brutal out of some innate evil but simple, mindless circumstance. More importantly, he teaches Signe how to wield a spear.

And that's the extent of the hermit's contribution to Signe's survival. I want to take this character and rub her Suzanne Collins's stupid face and go "Looook! This is how you do a sympathetic female protagonist ion a survivalist story!" But as I'll likely never get the chance, I'm doing it to you right now. Signe's character arch is both well-handled and immensely cathartic, as she evolves from a terrified girl into a hardened survivor just as capable and ruthless as Dagmar.

The setting deserves special mention. While the film tells us this is all going on in the early 14th century, the landscape is still modern Norway and yet still just as feral and alien as the unfolding story. Tall mountains, deep rivers, and cold forests all emphasize the finite mortality of the characters, even the brutal Dagmar. It's a world of cold beauty where death is an immediate reality and survival hinges solely on determination.

And it bears repeating - the principle protagonist and antagonist are women. Neither is a caricature or treads in stereotypes. You could easily make them both men and it wouldn't change the plot one bit - even the almost rapist, as it's not like that doesn't happen to boys. And this is from 2012! The Scandinavians are busy making progressive historical thrillers while Hollywood is pulling its hair out over making a fucking Wonder Woman movie!

Rot the multiplex. Stick to streaming.

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