Life in a Fishbowl deals with a rather recent past that is strangely forgotten. The scene is Reykjavík during the boom years of 2005 and 2006 – and it‘s an era we tend to exaggerate after the crash. In hindsight everybody was supposed to have been drinking gold-dust champagne with caviar all the time – but if we actually try to remember we’ll realize that hindsight is wrong. The reality is much more like this film, dealing with three characters – two of them only occasionally crashing the party – even if they would of course eventually pay for it and clean up the mess.
The movie tells the interlocking stories of Sölvi, the ex-striker turned bankster (yes, in Iceland the gangsters mostly used to work in banks), Eik, the kindergarten teacher who moonlights as a call girl and Móri, the writer turned bum. It’s a triptych whose celluloid DNA has a lot in common with films such as Amores Perros and Magnolia. A key scene is even eerily similar to one in Magnolia. But those sort of interlocking stories lend themselves perfectly to the realities of a micro-society like Iceland – this is a society small enough to make accidental encounters quite frequent. This means narrative devices that may be contrived in cities of millions are quite normal here – in this little fishbowl people keep bumping into each other.
The aforementioned films are all quite bleak but Life in a Fishbowl is probably a bit more optimistic. That’s in line with the Icelandic title of the film, Vonarstræti, which translates as Hope street. The name is not just metaphorical though; there is an actual street where the poet Móri lives, a tiny street in the heart of Reykjavík – just by city hall and Iðnó. And while this is a tragedy it’s a comforting one. Director Baldvin Z continues to develop a cinematic style that was also evident in Jitters, a style full of dark frames – but it’s a warm and poetic darkness, protecting the characters rather than putting them in jeopardy. It’s slightly realistic yet slightly dreamlike.
Baldvin’s biggest asset as a director though is simply the respect he has for every single character. This was a true godsend in Jitters – since few genres suffer more from condescending storytelling then the teenage film. In Life in a Fishbowl the best example may be Agnes, Sölvi’s wife. She may seem the quintessential trophy wife at first – but while her fate is in some ways typical of the stock character she represents this particular trophy wife is full of character and wit, so the audience doesn‘t get a free card to forgive Sölvi‘s sins towards her.
But while Eik and Sölvi are well drawn characters this film will primarily be remembered for one person. With poet-bum Móri Þorsteinn Bachmann has helped create one of Icelandic cinema’s most iconic characters. The film smartly introduces him through the skeptical eyes of disapproving fellow citizens, which means the audience is equally distrustful of him as the other characters are. But Móri never falls into the stock clichés of the bum – this is a real person, despite his alcoholism. Bachmann portrayal is near flawless and a continuation of solid character work in films such as Stormland and Either Way. In a sense he’s turning into the Icelandic Alec Baldwin: Both seemed primed for leading man status early on in their careers – but didn’t really hit their stride until they shed their leading man skin for the character actor within. And Móri certainly sheds a few skins before the film is over.
Ásgeir H Ingólfsson
Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine on June 6th 2014.