Plot: not all is well behind the white picket fences in suburban Reykjavík.
Art is bound to and reflective of the time it was produced in. As such certain things can only be made under specific circumstances or only in certain time periods. Cinema of the 1970s is particularly wicked and wild as it reflected the sweeping and rapidly changing social norms of the times, often regardless of geography. The 1970s were a decade of profound social, scientific – and technological advancements but they often came at the expense of dire economic upheavals. As the postwar economic boom drew to an end and stagflation reared its ugly head for the first time in history the haze of psychedelia had worn off and transformed into bleak cynicism. Morðsaga (or Story Of A Murder, released in most territories as simply Murder Story) might very well be the most historically important movie Iceland has ever spawned around this time. Murder Story details the unflattering socio-economic - and political realities of then present-day Iceland. It cautiously foretold of an upcoming age of conservatism in the social, economic, and political landscape and the attendant moral rot, unbridled egocentrism, and cold opportunism of the 1980s - the "Greed decade." It forewarned of the late-stage capitalist corporate dystopian hellscape we currently find ourselves in.
Murder Story is a piece of epochal filmmaking that could only be made in the year that it was. It certainly arrived at an interesting time. The Italian giallo wave was cresting and were being replaced by the North American and British terror and suspense films of the day. It was the era of the proto-slashers and subtext such as it has existed earlier in the decade was slowly being phased out. Murder Story more than anything else is thematically similar to the best gialli of Mario Bava, Luciano Ercoli, Sergio Martino, and Dario Argento as it concerns the unhappiness of the middleclass bourgeoisie rather than the common folk. Interestingly, it’s more of crime drama (or, at best, a thriller) rather than a full-blown exercise in terror and suspense. Reynir Oddsson was a pioneer if there ever was one. Murder Story from the onset clearly was his passion project, his absolute sole vision. Necessity and a nonexisting infrastructure forced him to write, produce, photograph, edit, and direct the feature all by himself.
Beyond anything else, Oddson’s cynical, satirical jab was clearly inspired by the French New Wave or the prime works of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol (he’s even mentioned by name), and Éric Rohmer as well as Alfred Hitchcock, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Luis Buñuel. Many considered Murder Story a gamble. Not only was it the first domestic full length color feature, but one made entirely by an all-Icelandic cast and crew. Oddson found supporters in critics Sigurður Sverrir Pálsson in Morgunblaðin and Ingibjörg Haraldsdóttir in Þjóðviljanum, both of whom wholeheartedly believed in the project and put ink to paper in support. As you would have it, detractors and pundits of the day decried Murder Story for not being Icelandic enough. History would prove them all wrong and Murder Story would become a formative cornerstone (and beloved classic) of contemporary Icelandic cinema. Before Murder Story there was no filmmaking infrastructure to speak of. If it wasn’t for Murder Story the Nordic noir (or Scandi noir) as a genre, both in the literary sense as for their later screen adaptations, would have never taken off the way it did or would even be deemed profitable. As a result many of the contemporary Scandi classics would have probably never seen the light of day.
Róbert (Steindór Hjörleifsson) is the overzealous, bovine CEO of some unspecified company in metropolitan Reykjavík. He’s an abusive impotent wretch of a man riddled with petty insecurities and even pettier hang-ups. He has an explosive temper and is prone to sudden inexplicable bouts of violence. To make matters worse, he’s a self-loathing hypocrite that doesn’t practice what he preaches. His wife Margrét (Guðrún Ásmundsdóttir) is a mere shadow of the woman she once was. She spends her sullen days in a glassy-eyed permanently alcoholic haze having completely effaced herself to accomodate her husband’s terrible moodswings. Their 18-year-old daughter Anna (Þóra Sigurþórsdóttir) works an unfulfilling administrative job at some faceless office and is stuck in a deadend relationship with psychology student and pseudo-intellectual blowhard Daníel (Ingólfur Sigurðsson). He systematically fails to treat her with the dignity and respect she deserves. Her only reprieve is spending her weekends drinking hard and partying harder with her friend Kristín (Elva Gísladóttir). Meanwhile, Margrét spends her days drinking and fantasizing of being ravaged by the dishwasher repairman (Kjartan Ragnarsson) whereas Róbert is engaged in an illicit affair with Frilla (Margrét Helga Jóhannsdóttir). One night Róbert and Margrét host an important dinner party for their aristocratic business associate friends while Anna and Kristín visit a house party that “slutty” Lovísa (Ragnheiður Árnadóttir) is throwing. Both parties will inevitably end in tragedy in different but similar ways. Not only is Róbert a self-important freak he’s a repressed bitter puritan more concerned with keeping up appearances rather than maintaining his own moral hygiene. He envies (and despises) his nubile daughter’s carefree, hedonistic lifestyle and will scold her for her alleged promiscuity at every turn. Yet he has developed an unbecoming, near-predatory lust for young Anna and desires nothing more than her sweet, perfectly formed ass. Exhausted of being at the receiving end of the patriarch’s abuse mother and daughter resort to desperate measures to remedy their situation.
And what’s any feature without at least one potential starlet? Here’s that Þóra Sigurþórsdóttir in her sole ever screen role – and it’s unbelievable that this never led to bigger opportunities and long and prosperous career in European exploitation. To call Sigurþórsdóttir a freezing hot blonde would be putting it very, very mildly. She should have been, by whatever metric you choose to employ, the Icelandic equivalent to Danish delights as Birte Tove, Lise-Lotte Norup, and Anne Grete Nissen or a Scandinavian alternative to Eurocult favourites as Barbara Bouchet, Ewa Aulin, or Susan George. Fairly early on there’s a scene where Sigurþórsdóttir lounges in her retro futuristic designer chair smoking a cigarette barefoot while listening to a record and there’s a sizzling bathroom changing scene that could have come from a Gloria Guida sex comedy. Sigurþórsdóttir is the subject of her aging father’s incestual longing in a subplot straight out of a 1970s Italian sex comedy. That’s not even mentioning that one instance where she’s given a literal spanking by her all too willing father after being tardy from a date. In a just world any of this (either individually or collectively) would have been enough to set her up for a steady career in Nordporn, German comedy (Lederhosen or otherwise) or at least some of those Bedside (1970-1976) sex comedies. None of which, tragically, seems to have transpired. Pretty much everybody else went on to have long careers in Scandinavian cinema and television, but not Þóra. Perhaps the most interesting behind-the-scenes story is that of performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson. He claims that he was conceived the night after his mother and father Guðrún Ásmundsdóttir and Kjartan Ragnarsson had to do the dishwasher sex scene as the character of his mother imagines being ravaged by a hapless plumber.
Murder Story oozes with the blackest of contempt as it self-consciously exposes the Swinging Sixties’ broken promises of peace and love and harmonious communal living throughout the world as well as the hypocrisies and the fall of ideals of the Flower Power movement of passive resistance and nonviolence that eventually led to nothing. It is a sobering dissection of the cold emptiness of capitalist consumerism that nourished the burgeoning class of the nouveau riche and their newfound obsession with material wealth as a mask for their abject spiritual/intellectual poverty. This is about the rise of suburbia and their disdain for the lowly peasantry, the entitlement of the haves and the continuing disenfranchisement of the have-nots, of mutual respect and understanding between generations, as well as the perpetrators and casualties of sexism and the patriarchy and the power structures that both seek to uphold. The country was still reeling from the Icelandic Women’s Strike of 24th October 1975, the Kvennafrídagurinn or The Women’s Day Off that had grinded the country to a halt. Throughout the decade the Redstockings fought for women’s labor and reproductive rights and they still faced significant wage disparity and limited workplace advancements. Three years later, on 1 August 1980, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became the first female president of the country and the first female head of the state in the world. It sort of echoed the then-ongoing and widely publicized Geirfinns and Guðmundar case. It also confronted the uneasy subjects of domestic violence, rape, and incest which remain taboo to this day. Murder Story held up a mirror to Icelandic society of the time and the image did flatter not. What Charlie and His Two Chicks (1973) was to the Protestant work ethic in France around the same time, and how Fernando di Leo’s To Be Twenty (1978) laid fire upon Italian macho society whilst deconstructing the sex comedy using nothing more than the gyrating naked bodies of Gloria Guida and Lilli Carati. Murder Story offered a sardonic glimpse into 1970s Icelandic society.
The impact of Murder Story was as profound as it was immediate and cannot be understated. It ushered in what’s known today as the Icelandic film spring. The Icelandic Filmmakers Association had been around since 1966 but there was no infrastructure worthy of the name to easily facilitate production for either film or television. A year later, in 1978, the Icelandic Film Centre (then still known as the Icelandic Film Fund) was founded and domestic production very slowly commenced. German director Werner Herzog visited Iceland in 1979 and believed there wouldn’t ever be any domestic – or international film production. History would prove him wrong and Murder Story laid the necessary groundwork for not only Icelandic film production at large but also for the Nordic noir (or Scandi noir) thriller subgenre. It would be until 1980, a full three years later, before the next domestic feature would be produced. Another decade would pass before Icelandic cinema reached its next milestone. Children of Nature (1991) from Friðrik Þór Friðriksson was nominated for an Academy Award and gave Iceland prestige and recognition on the international stage. From that point onward Iceland would produce internationally distributed features on a regular basis. Two years ago, in 2021, Reynir Oddsson received the Edda Price, an honorary award from Íslenska kvikmynda- og sjónvarpsakademían (the Icelandic Film and Television Academy), for his invaluable contributions to the development of Icelandic film and television.