Movie review: Voyage to Greenland (Le Voyage au Groenland)

(image courtesy Netflix)


Much as we like to think we can push and pummel life to fit our preconceived notions, the truth is it has an often perverse way of defying our expectations.

Try as we might, and many of us try pretty hard, usually in our youth when possibilities seem endless and limitations few, the gulf between where we are and where we thought we would be widens to the point where we either accept equanimously that this is the way of things, fight back, or as is the case with Thomas (Thomas Blanchard) and Thomas (Thomas Scimeca), sit somewhere awkwardly inbetween.

Both underemployed actors from Paris who get enough work to continue receiving their social security but not much more, the two friends of ten years standing are in their thirties, butting their heads against stymied career goals, romantic inertia and a general sense that life has shrunk to nothing and passed them by.

Thomas B – initials seem the easiest way to describe the men who are alike in name only – is the least adventurous of the two, a careful soul who restricts his life to an ever decreasing radius, both geographical and aspirational, and who may, or may not be, he is equivocal at best, on this point, in a relationship with the unseen Lisa.

He is convinced by the far more garrulous Thomas S, a man who disagrees with everything he reads and sees but who will give anything a go once (thin raw seal liver for one) to travel to the remote village of Kullorsuaq, an inuit settlement perched on the side of a hill that, at the time of their visit, and you suspect much of the time, is held firmly in the grip of eternal cold and daylight.

It may seem like a quirky place to spend a few weeks, but Thomas B’s father Nathan (François Chattot) has lived here for 20 years (he is far more apt to try new things and go new places than his more conservative son with whom he is not especially close) and now is as good a time as any, reasons Thomas S, to spread their truncated wings and see what lies beyond their increasingly small world in Paris.


(image courtesy Netflix)


This may sound like the set up for an intense drama of self-realisation, great familial changes and the kind of revelatory insight that only a complete change of location can engender, but the truth is that Voyage to Greenland, as prosaic as title as its charmingly uneventful narrative, written and directed by Sébastien Betbeder, is the sort of film where life rarely loosens its pre-arranged stranglehold of been-there, done-that.

It’s oddly perverse given that Kullorsuaq, a town both deeply traditional, where seal and polar bear hunting, usually by the taciturn Martika (Martin Jensen), and riven by incipient change driven by the internet which has shown the youth of the town such as Nukannguaq (Benedikte Eliassen) that there is more to life than the life of their forebears, is a million miles away from the dual Thomases world of failed casting calls and half-baked romance.

But the reality is you can’t really run from yourself – an apt way of describing things given the two friends propensity, driven naturally by Thomas S, for jogging in their heavy parkas across the snowy landscape in an attempt to get fit (to the amusement of the locals) – nor life’s rut-shaped track, and the film ends with neither man having gone through anything like a road to Damascus moment.

That, however, is not really the point.

The trip to see Nathan, which follows the visit of Ole (Ole Eliassen) and Adam (Adam Eskilden) to Paris some years earlier, though replete with community dances where raw seal liver, not alcohol is available in great profusion, and trips to hunt for traditional food such as seals, is really business as usual for the two men who try to push the boundaries of their lives out a little but without any real enthusiasm.

Thomas S, at least tries to sweet talk quiet Nukannguaq into pursuing a holiday romance, but for the most part the friends read, chill and look on askance, though with warmth and a willingness to take part, at the activities of the village.

Nathan may have found his true place of being far away from his old life in Paris, but he is a unique man (harbouring, by the way, some sort of ailment which neither he nor his son, who admits his family is emotionally shutdown, seem inclined to discuss fully or at all) and as the film meanders on its pleasingly-chilled (literal and otherwise) way, you begin to realise that neither Thomas will find themselves experiencing any kind of epiphany here.


(image courtesy Unifrance)


Rather, Voyage to Greenland, which begins and ends with helicopter flights, the only way into and out of the remote location, is all about life and its often unnoticed small changes taking place in the quiet moments.

It’s exemplified most beautifully and with much more emotional impact that the exchange itself suggests in the final conversation between father and son where Nathan, as ever unable to fully express exactly how he feels in open and robust terms, suggests to Thomas B that it might be nice if they stay in touch.

In turn, his son, reluctant to leave his father when he’s not sure the man he’s got to know somewhat better over the last few weeks will be there when he returns, if he returns which honestly seems unlikely, asks him to do the same.

It’s a quiet plea to stay close that barely breaks the ice (pun intended) of the relationship between the two but it heralds that while not much may changed outwardly, that there has been a welcome shift of sorts between the two men, the kind of outwardly unseen but inwardly vital change that life is rife with if you are inclined to pay it some notice.

Quiet and filmed with a documentary-style aloofness than is nevertheless charming and emotionally-involving, Voyage to Greenland, does have some sweet moments of humour such as the entire village, or near enough, turns out to see the two Thomases try to get a dial-up connection to the outside world so they can provide their monthly earnings to social security.

It’s adorably funny, a rare moment of goofy levity in a film which is neither grimly realistic nor slapstick silly – there are no great dramatic nadirs nor sequences played for easy laughs, underscoring how nuanced and thoughtful the screenplay is at all times – but absolutely on point about the way we, and the lives, we lead can change even if, at first glance, not much seems to have changed at all.


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