Eye For Film >> Movies >> Kalak (2023) Film Review
Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson
The uncompromising environment of Greenland provides a fitting backdrop for Isabella Eklöf’s character study, which refuses to pull its punches right from its opening depiction of sexual abuse. The disturbing and graphic attack is perpetrated by Ole (Søren Hellerup) on his teenage son Jan (Emil Johnsen).
Fast-forward a few years and Jan is living what might be considered a straightforward life working as a nurse in Nuuk, Greenland, with his wife Laerke (Asta Kamma August) and young family. But his smiling air is a surface affair and things become increasingly strained after he starts receiving letters from his, now terminally ill, father. Eklöf emphasises the psychological violence of this by having Ole read his first letter directly to the camera. This gives his words an unsettling immediacy that helps us to imagine Jan’s feelings upon receipt.
It’s perhaps just as well that the director offers this early opportunity for empathy since Jan is what might be termed “a difficult victim”, which is to say, he’s increasingly hard to like. Ambiguity hangs around him like a cloud. It’s also something he embraces, learning the language and striving to become a Kalak, or “dirty Greenlander”, a phrase that can be positive or negative depending on the way the speaker turns it. The ambiguity extends to his homelife where, though he might be smiley and sympathetic with his family and his patients, he’s also a serial philanderer who happily admits the fact to his wife.
Eklöf also doesn’t deal in absolutes, allowing us to see that Jan is both damaged and damaging, not just to himself but others - a hot mess in a cold climate. There’s a needy quality to his liaisons with two Greenlanders, the fierce Karine (Berda Larsen) and the fragile Ella (Connie Kristoffersen) but Eklöf shows, no matter what his ego may believe, he’s not the only one with a problematic past. The director also nods to the colonial history between Greenland and Denmark, another traumatic relationship that has cast a long shadow.
The remote landscape is well employed, not just for its cool visuals but also its soundscape, with the howl of the semi-feral sled dogs joining together at dusk. In certain scenes - a night at a makeshift bar, a house gathering - the film takes on a hybrid quality, hovering between fiction and documentary.
For his part, Johnsen allows us to see the chasm that lies behind Jan’s apparently easy smile. He reflects his character’s emotional decline with an increasingly physical performance as Jan takes his family to an even more isolated town in a move mirroring his own mental state.
Based on the autobiographical novel by Kim Leine, who adapted it with Eklöf and Sissel Dalsgaard Thomsen, there’s a raw quality to this drama that feels as sharp as a wind on a wet cheek. Unflinching in its considerations of trauma and its impact, Eklöf ends as punchily as she started but in cold places like these, you can’t expect much of a thaw.Reviewed on: 18 Oct 2023
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