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Berlin film ‘Beautiful Beings’ on bullying and love

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For his sophomore feature, “Beautiful Beings,” playing in the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama, Icelandic helmer-writer Gudmundur Arnar Gudmundsson returns to the subject of his prize-winning first feature “Heartstone” (2016): fraught adolescent friendships and difficult family lives. In “Beautiful Beings,” a horrendously bullied youth forms a tentative rapport with a trio of tough outsiders. Together, the boys experiment with aggression and violence, but also learn about loyalty and love.

The action is captured with a shooting style that blends naturalism and lyricism, using mostly first-time young actors. To find his characters, Gudmundsson put out an open casting call across the country. “We wanted to get every kid in Iceland that has a dream of being in a film to show up. A lot of kids auditioned and we managed to find our main cast,” he says.

But creating the performances he wanted required work, Gudmundsson admits. “The rehearsal period was long. We started out by teaching them basic acting techniques without reading or discussing the script. When the kids started to feel comfortable, then we started discussing their characters and did improv acting with their characters, then finally they read and rehearsed the script.”

To keep their interaction real, he encouraged them to play and make spontaneous decisions with their movement in the scenes.

Some of the physicality, as when the boys climb a rusty ladder to the roof of a tall building, verges on the dangerous and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. Gudmundsson, however, is always the first to test the situation so he knows exactly what he’s asking his actors to do. “After we did the difficult cliff hanging scene in ‘Heartstone,’ we thought we would like to use more visual effects this time, but after a lot of testing and planning we concluded that doing things on location was the best and safest option for what we wanted to achieve,” he says. However, he notes “the most important thing while shooting scenes like these is to have very experienced safety experts on set who supervise every step.”

In contrast to the uniformly toxic adult masculinity that surrounds the boys, we meet the caring, spiritually attuned mother of Addi (Birgir Dagur Bjarkason), the film’s narrator, warmly and sympathetically played by Anita Briem (“The Tudors”). She analyzes her dreams and appears in those of her children as if to protect them. Gudmundsson says he wanted a supernatural element in the film. “In general, people in Iceland believe in interpreting their dreams and fortune telling,” he says. “It’s ingrained into our culture even if it is not something we talk a lot about. However, when you start talking about it to someone like a friend or co-worker, you find out everyone has some kind of story about a dream or fortune teller who gave them some kind of important information.”

As someone who relies heavily on intuition and gets guidance from his dreams, Gudmundsson is interested in further exploring the uncanny element. “I have a few projects in the writing phase. I might take the supernatural element further and do a children’s fairytale,” he says.

“Beautiful Beings” reunites Gudmundsson with his “Heartstone” cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, and composer, Kristian Eidnes Andersen. “I find it to be such a gift, as you know each other and understand each other a lot better,” he says. “It is another language to explain emotions and visuals, and how you want it all to come to life. When you know each other’s creative language, it is a huge plus.”

 

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