The eighties were a funny age in Icelandic cinema; crazy comedies with a simple and occasionally accidentally controversial humor were all the rage in the decade known for outrageous fashion choices, heavy smoking and so much more.
Stella Gets her Groove Back (original title: Stella í orlofi; 1986) is perfectly balanced in controversy, craziness and fashion choices that scream neon lights and costume party.
The star of the film is Stella; a liberal housewife in Reykjavík married to an unfaithful husband and a mother to three children, two of them pranksters at heart and the oldest a bookworm.
Stella is played by one of Iceland’s leading female comedian and actress, Edda Björgvinsdóttir, who for as long as I can remember has been a prominent figure in the Icelandic entertainment industry.
Accompanied by a league of comedians whose careers span into the present day, the film depicts a sequence of events in the life of a bored housewife and the people she meets along the way.
As the film opens, we get to know the neurotic father Georg (Gestur Einar Jónsson), who Stella calls Goggi. He is planning a weekend away with the mistress he is flying in from Copenhagen, Sara Svensen.
The night before the secret getaway—disguised as a business trip with a “client” of his—he suffers an injury preventing him to do much traveling or holidaying for that matter.
His devoted and resourceful wife decides to take it on herself and the children to entertain the Swedish guest he tells her he’s expecting, and take him to a country cottage by the river Selá for a proper Icelandic fishing trip with plenty of booze and cigarettes.
My absolute favorite character is Salomon, the Swedish drunk coming to Iceland for the latest craze among Icelandic housewives and cheating husbands: rehab.
Played by Icelandic comedian Laddi whose real name is Þórhallur Sigurðsson, Solomon is believable as the Swedish drunk on his last binge before being liberated by the demons of alcoholism.
In the prime of his youth, the blonde-haired Laddi is surprisingly charming when assertive and obligingly obedient to Stella’s every request.
Stella’s children are a chip of the maternal block. The oldest is a serial reader of the works of great thinkers and mature beyond her years, while her younger brother and sister are inventive pranksters who let their imagination and innate curiosity dictate their actions.
On a simple weekend trip with the kids and her husband’s “business partner” Stella’s life is permanently “rehabilitated”.
A greedy pilot and his followers, a group of a local Lions Club members and a lot of fish on the wrong side of the river lay the foundation of a hilarious scene where eighties ridiculism and the Icelandic Spaugstofan humor come together to portray the very opposites of the local characteristics:
An innate part of the Icelandic character, the stubborn territorialism for one’s belongings and a spirit of forgiveness and forgetfulness when mistaken are captured in the very scene by the river.
The film, like so many Icelandic comedies produced in the eighties is rich in stereotypes. The Arab, the out-of-place and almost inappropriately dressed mistress, the idiotic husband with the double-standards, the manipulative and overbearing pilot and the hick who just so happens to speak better English than the city slicker Stella, are just a highlight of the flora of stereotypes enriching the somewhat intelligent but idiotic humor.
It took me a little while to work out the “rehab” misunderstanding the night I sat down to watch the film but once I realized the director’s clever use of stereotypes and wordplays, I nearly fell off the couch in fits of laughter.
I have watched my share of Icelandic comedies from the eighties but Stella Gets Her Groove Back is in a league of its own.
Set in the Icelandic countryside, the film does not take itself too seriously but manages to intertwine the storyline with the theme of the film: Rehab.
The surprising ending reunites the main characters with the minor ones, featuring among others some of the crew from the aforementioned Spaugstofan, an Icelandic comedy group that for years has entertained Icelanders with their idiotic sense of humor with an underlying social criticism. Faces such s Örn Árnason, Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Pálmi Gestsson are familiar to the Icelandic viewer but not so much to the rest of the world.
A sequel was produced in 2002 and was titled Stella í framboði or Stella Runs for Office.
This time, Stella’s children are grown up and she is a media presenter, an author and a co-host of a website intended to help people find fulfillment in life.
The same characters appear played by the same cast, each in a different place than they where found themselves in 1986.
Again the emphasis is on the accidental but also the trend of the new millennium, albeit it fails to execute the theme of the online trend successfully.
This time Stella finds herself an accidental candidate in a political battle and Salomon, her business partner in a website entrepreneur, www.framkoma.is finds himself losing favor with the former pilot Anton, now a landowner branching out his operations in the beautiful region of Hvalfjörður, a scenic fjord near Reykjavík.
What the film really lacks is the chemistry between Salomon and Stella. They are kept apart for most of the film.
The film tells the story of Stella’s accidental involvement in politics and Salomon’s encounter with an old foe and a journey during which he encounters people of interest, travels on foot by himself in the magnificent Hvalfjörður where a mountain range meets narrow man-made roads and history is written in the soil, and finds black gold.
The storyline is unfortunately a poor substitute for the original, and ran from beginning to end without great fits of laughter, except perhaps in the case of Salomon, again played by Laddi, who had a few good moments.
In Stella Gets her Groove Back, the thread of comedy is continuous and Stella is the center of the film. Her interaction with the people in her life and the people she meets, in particular Salomon, are all influenced by her strong personality.
The comedy is centered on the contrasts in the eighties Iceland and the crazy by-varying-degrees characters. The film focuses in particular on the notion of rehab and successfully executes the rehab comedy from beginning to end.
Even though the sequel to Stella Gets Her Groove Back fails where the original succeeded, it can be of interest to a patient viewer to watch it, if for nothing else than to see the occasional moments of comedian Laddi in his role as Salomon, and perhaps the stereotyped gay couple (played by Stefán Karl Stefánsson and Steinn Ármann Magnússon) who celebrate life in a dance under the naked summer sky and in the presence of the majestic Hvalfjörður.
Writer Guðný Halldórsdóttir may not have succeeded to continue the success of the original in the sequel, which she directed herself, but in co-operation with director Þórhildur Þórleifsdóttir, the original remains a classic comedy in Iceland, even for generations whose recollections of the eighties may not extend further than to childhood.
Stella Gets Her Groove Back deserves four stars while the sequel merits but one and half, the half courtesy of the king of comedy Laddi and perhaps Sigurður Sigurjónsson whose minor role brings a little something to an otherwise dull film.
Júlíana Björnsdóttir – firstname.lastname@example.org