Dark humor with tragic outcomes form a unique glimpse into an Icelandic horse-riding community.
Of Horses and Men
An alternate title for this film could have been Wild Tails. Somewhat similar to Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men weaves several vignettes together to create a grotesque black comedy with unpredictable results. Both films are packed with cringe-worthy situations, thick irony, and absurd consequences. Though the storylines found in Of Horses And Men aren’t independent of each other and when combined they explore an offbeat relationship between man and horse. Admittedly, the film is difficult to label as it has a bit of everything in it, which explains why the film bills itself as a comedy/drama/romance, and you could probably make a case for adding horror to the list as well. But one thing’s for sure, it’s one of the most strangely beautiful films featuring horses you’ll ever see.
Set in a remote Icelandic countryside, the citizens of this community rarely see much action. Most live so far apart from each other that they often sit outside their home and observe their surroundings through binoculars. But on one particular afternoon, they see more action than they’ve ever hoped. Kolbeinn (Ingvar E. Sigurdson) saddles up his beautiful white horse for a ride over to Solveig’s (Charlotte Bøving) home for some afternoon tea. While they’re enjoying their tea together, Solveig’s black stallion notices the mare and manages to break loose of the fenced-in area. Kolbeinn doesn’t make it very far before the stallion catches up to them and takes the steed from behind. It’s an absolute shocking scene to witness—two horses getting it on while Kolbeinn still sits in the saddle. He has no choice but to let it happen and just stares hard at the ground in humiliation, knowing he’s being watched by a group of onlookers with binoculars in the distance.
If that doesn’t express the film’s pitch-black comedy direction enough for you, the next scene will. Here the town drunk Vernhardur (Steinn Armann Magnusson) rides a horse into the sea in hopes of flagging down a passing fishing vessel. Through binoculars (a running theme in the film) the crew spot this odd sight of a man and horse swimming towards the ship. Eager to help, they raise the two out of the water, only to find the man just wants to buy some vodka. But because they speak different languages, he’s sent off with a couple of jugs of pure alcohol instead, and the scene ends gruesomely.
Of Horses and Men is comprised of several short stories like these and most end in some sort of absurd death. For instance, the film follows an angry man cutting down barbed wire fences which block horse paths, sending a landowner chasing after him in his tractor. The problem seems to solve itself at the next stop when the snipped barbed wire snaps back into his face blinding him. But the story doesn’t end there. In a strange turn of events, the bloodied up face of the fence bandit frightens the landowner so much that he drives off a cliff to his own death. In the end it’s the fence that wins—blinding the man attempting to take it down and killing the man who put it up in the first place.
Each distinct story begins with a close up of a horse eye, reflecting back an image of man that reinforces the mutual bond between animal and human. Stunning imagery like this is found in every crevice of the film due to Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s exceptional camera work. He takes advantage of the gorgeous Icelandic landscapes, capturing the beauty of desolate countryside which also emphasizes the sprawling narrative tone, while an upbeat score adds the right amount of comedic playfulness to contrast.
Of Horses and Men provides a satirical look at the human condition using primal themes of love, sex, and death. As with most anthology films, some episodes work better than others, but it all comes together near the end when the narrative bookends with the opening storyline. Mirroring the awkward sexual circumstance from the beginning tale, this time Kolbeinn and Solveig have sex while the horse is forced to watch in sheer embarrassment. Erlingsson combines dark humor with tragic outcomes to form a unique glimpse into an Icelandic horse-riding community. It’s strange, it’s beautiful, and most importantly, it’s memorable.