Foreign films often demand some cultural context, but the requirements are a little stiffer than usual for The Seagull's Laughter, and the low-key rewards are stingy, to say the least. For those unschooled in the period and setting, the film's peculiar '50s milieu sounds like the title of a thesis paper: Icelandic mythology and how it relates to gender relations and social mores in the years immediately following WWII. Working from a novel by Kristin Marja Baldursdóttir, writer-director Ágúst Gudmundsson labors mightily to draw out the sharp disparities separating men, women, the working class, and the aristocrats, but many of the comedy's darker inflections get lost in translation. What remains is closer to recent Scandinavian imports like Nói or Elling, a pleasantly inconsequential small-town quirkfest that's presumably more meaningful to native audiences.
A cross between a Viking goddess and a Hollywood pinup, Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir returns to a tiny fishing village near Reykjavik after a decade in America, where she ran off with a now-deceased U.S. serviceman. Once a plump wallflower, Vilhjálmsdóttir sets tongues wagging with her Rita Hayworth figure and trunkloads of sophisticated, form-fitting evening gowns. Shortly after moving in with her underclass relatives, who admire and emulate her irreverent style, Vilhjálmsdóttir attracts the attention of a wealthy engineer (Heino Ferch), who's willing to waive the strict social codes that keep the rabble at bay. While many of the local women feel empowered by the newcomer's strong example, 11-year-old Ugla Egilsdóttir immediately suspects her of evil, especially when two philandering husbands die under mysterious circumstances.
As told largely from the young girl's perspective, The Seagull's Laughter has elements of an obscure children's fable, with Vilhjálmsdóttir as a sex goddess who dreams in symbols (hence the head-scratching title) and occasionally sojourns alone to an eerily animated rock face. But beyond the mythical, the film doesn't go far enough in depicting a sewing circle gone deadly, which has more black-comedy potential than Gudmundsson ever gets around to exploiting. The director documents a specific time in Iceland's history, when men and women were grappling over dramatically shifting roles, but it's hard for non-islanders to fully comprehend his deceptively lightweight battle of the sexes. Only in the wickedly ironic coda, when an older Egilsdóttir matures into a new perspective, does the film's sorority of widows, queens, and possible murderesses have some bite.