“I don’t understand why they don’t divorce,” Agnes (Donna Cruz) confides to a friend about her parents in “Agnes Joy,” eager to leave for the city when it seems like there’s surely more opportunity than in the small town she grew up, but equally captivated by the thought she’ll get to leave behind her mother Rannveig (Katla M. Porgeirdottir) and father Einar (Þorsteinn Bachmann), who barely speak to each other these days, leaving all three to slink off to their respective rooms in the home that they share. Moving isn’t a choice for Rannveig, who took over the family business and refuses to outsource in spite of lower labor costs, but the constant headaches that require her to visit her doctor as a result of feeling unwanted by those closest to her suggest a change may be in order with her eye wandering, as her daughter’s does, towards a new next door neighbor (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson).
There’s a little bit of lurid intrigue in Silja Hauksdottir’s second feature as Rannveig and Agnes take an interest in the same man, but “Agnes Joy” is after something greater in exploring how grievances pile up within a family where things grow more complex when each relationship has a distinctly different dynamic from one another and while everyone is desperate to know what the other wants, it’s impossible when they often don’t know that entirely themselves. Shot seaside in Iceland, the waves made inside the house are often more treacherous than the ones outside and as Rannveig takes center stage, finding herself with less options to take a radical new direction in life as her daughter does, Porgeirdottir delivers a strong performance letting all the emotions roiling around pour out in often unexpected ways. With the film up for Oscar consideration as Iceland’s official entry for Best International Feature, Hauksdottir, Cruz and Porgeirdottir spoke about their collaboration and creating a family on set as well as alternate endings and connecting – and disconnecting – to the experience of making it.
Silja Hauksdottir: It came to me as a fully written script many years ago with almost the same premise, but nothing else, so, Gagga [Jonsdottir], one of my co-writers, and I took it up and started throwing it around a bit. It ended up being a complete rewrite [after] many years, and a third co-writer [Jóhanna Friðrika Sæmundsdóttir] came along on board and what is left is this character of Agnes and her as an adopted daughter in a very small town close to Reykjavík, [so there’s] the ability to be so close to something that’s a city, but not being there, like being able to look over the sea towards something that’s very close to you, but also very unattainable at the same time. But since then we have had many babies, husbands, apartments — name it. Lost and won a lot of things.
What got you interested in this?
Katla M. Porgeirdottir: Well, everything. When I read the script, it was so easy to connect to it. Rannveig is a woman same age as I am, and I could understand so many things she’s going through. But I just thought that the script was so well written, and with three women writing this, and all the people felt so real and sympathetic, so I was very excited from the first day.
Donna Cruz: Yeah, the script was just so genuine and you see throughout the film all kinds of people making all kinds of decisions, either good or bad, but you can’t really pinpoint the bad guy because everyone is just human. That was something I really cared about. The part that Agnes felt like she didn’t really belong to her hometown — the sense of not belonging is something that I could relate to and probably a lot of people as well, and the overall conflict between [my character] and her mother, I think every girl has gone through that.
Katla M. Porgeirdottir: I can tell you for sure that relationship, especially between the mother and daughter, I can relate to. I have children and I know how we can struggle with that. You really want the best for your children, of course, but then there’s this anxiety and you are putting on their shoulders something that is annoying you. Your frustration becomes their frustrations, so for me, that was something I really connected to and I’m trying to work on myself.
Did you actually shoot in a real house? I liked how the space felt like you could feel the distance between the family within the house, but at the same time, it was such a tight space.
Silja Hauksdottir: It was really important also to do it on location, because they are supposed to be in a tight space, feeling a bit stuffy with the lack of oxygen somehow, but also [there are] these windows are everywhere in the house, so [Rannveig’s] looking over to the neighbors, she’s looking outside. We are dealing with lonely people that are very close to one another, but still being lonely, so they are alienated somehow and when you’re alienated, you’re somehow stuck in your own corner and you can’t even talk about how lonely you are, because you don’t have that trust towards someone, so I really had to be there to understand how we can actually make it come about somehow.
Katla M. Porgeirdottir: You felt that all the time, the sea just out of your house and it’s a small town.
Donna Cruz: Silja was very successful building that environment that she wanted and it clearly came through when you watch the film.
Silja Hauksdottir: Our main focus was just hanging out, building a relationship between us [as] actors and a director towards the story. This is a very small society, especially in this business, and many of us have had worked together before, but it was important to those who hadn’t to create a bond that’s the same bond towards the story.
Silja Hauksdottir: I just get super embarrassed or anxious when there’s something related to nudity or romantic scenes. That’s somehow my directorial trigger, so that was what was most hectic for. It’s like trying to keep face, “Oh yes, so is everybody okay?” And they laughed. Being petrified myself, I’m like, “I’m so sorry I’m making you do this. I’m so sorry.”
Katla M. Porgeirdottir: We didn’t feel it, Silja. You were so relaxed. You were so relaxed. Of course, when I read the script, I was like, “Oh, no, there’s a sex scene” and you’re not looking forward to that. And I supposed to be naked. But then when it happened, it was like no problem at all, because Silja stays cool and it’s so good to talk to her about things. Then remember? She was supposed to swim in the sea and we did that.
Silja Hauksdottir: Yes, we had a completely different ending that we shot, but didn’t end up in the film. Two women swam in the sea in February in Iceland and it wasn’t in the film! [laughs] Yeah, talk about how you have to sacrifice.
Katla M. Porgeirdottir: Yeah. [laughs]
The dedication still obviously paid off. What’s it been like bringing this out into the world?
Silja Hauksdottir: It’s been quite an amazing journey, and maybe it’s a cliche, but every now and then to realize that this thing has a life on its own and there are actually people in this world enjoying it as we speak is a reality check you get. It’s amazing. We’re really proud of her.
Donna Cruz: When the movie premiered in Busan, it felt surreal. I was watching myself, but I felt like it wasn’t me, which is maybe just a good thing. And we shot it 2018, then premiered last year, and there comes a time when I almost forget that I was in a movie but I get a reminder and the feeling comes over again and feels wonderful, but also like, “Oh, is this real?”
Katla M. Porgeirdottir: I felt so good when we were in Busan because, like Donna, I forgot that I was in this film. The story is so strong that you forget and also it reminded me of the good times because it was quite special. I’ve been in films before and I have to say the harmony was so clear and there was a lot of trust. It was really an awesome time.
“Agnes Joy” does not yet have U.S. distribution.