Based on Kim Leine’s 2007 autobiographical eponymous novel, this international co-production of six European countries examines the life of 30-something-year-old nurse Jawho (Emil Johnsen) during the 1980s as he moves from his native Denmark to the remoteness of Nuuk, Greenland’s quiet and bucolic capital, and then the even more distant and isolated Kulusuk (a settlement of just 200 inhabitants). He is accompanied by his wife (Asta Kamma August) and their two children Markus and Amanda.
On the surface, Jan has a well-structured family and career: he is loved by his patients, spouse and offspring. But there’s a dirty secret preventing him from achieving happiness: he was sexually abused by his father, an event that audiences witness in graphic detail in the movie’s opening sequence. Instead of devoting his full attention to his wife, he engages in multiple affairs with a string of local women. One of the locals challenges him: “you must love Greenlandic women”. He retorts: “I love all women”. He is upfront about his extramarital life to his wife, also indicating that he has no desire to give up his lifestyle. She offers no reaction to his candid yet seemingly selfish and objectionable behaviour.
Jan’s father is dying of cancer, yet he mostly ignores his elder’s attempts at reestablishing some sort of communication him. It is his wife who reads the letter informing the family that the disease has progressed, and that death is all but inevitable. His family find Jan’s lack of emotion awkward, but never challenge him. Jan only shares his secret to one of his lovers, perhaps in search of compassion, but the response that he receives leaves him shellshocked (in the film’s most powerful dialogue). Does his tragic past indeed justify his demeanour, or is Jan simply indifferent to the emotional pains and malaises of those around him? Is he a sexual victim or a sexual predator, Kalak seems to ask.
A couple of freak accidents affect two people very close to Jan’s heart, and he becomes overridden with guilt and depression. He resorts to prescription drugs, aided by the very unorthodox local doctor. The clinician alternates Ritalin and Rohypnol in order to keep going, and recommends a cocktail of morphine and Tramadol for anxiety, with the occasional benzodiazepine thrown in – one has to wonder what medical school he attended.
The film title means “dirty Greenlander”, a suitable accolade for our complex and multilayered protagonist. He is dirty because he’s an outsider. He’s dirty because his promiscuous lifestyle is at odds with his profession. And he is dirty because he profanes the sanctity of his very own family. And he is unrepentant. We eventually learn that he inherited some of these traits from his unapologetic father. Viewers are left to judge whether Jan’s choices reflect and perpetuate the actions of the man whom he despises, or whether they are the genuine expression of a free-loving soul.
Swedish director Isabella Eklöf’s sophomore feature is bursting with raw authenticity, all wrapped up in the cold Greenlandic weather and Scandinavian stoicism. Not a remarkably heart-wrenching experience, however a palpable and honest one.
Kalak just premiered as part of the Official Competition of the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival. Also showing at the Turin Film Festival