The enormity of the snowy, picture-postcard vista in any Scandinavian film can never be underestimated, signifying both a fairy tale and a foreboding setting. This fascinating dichotomy is ever present in Finnish writer-director Mikko Myllylahti’s new tale, The Woodcutter Story – the title of which sounds much like folklore in itself.

This oddball, pitch-black dramedy begins with an unexplained meeting at the top of a snowy mountain between a suited corporate type and an impatient woman – quite what is going on and who these individuals are is open to interpretation, but the pair is clearly discussing the fate of the residents below of a remote, unnamed Finnish town where the story is set. 

Enter Pepe the woodcutter (played by Jarkko Lahti, star of writer Myllylahti’s award-winning The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki at 2016 Cannes Film Festival), his family and friends who live a simple yet uneventful life – unless there is a birthday down in the only pub. What appears to be an idyllic existence is under constant threat from disruption. When the norm of woodland walks, fishing and playing cards during cosy nights in is instantly destroyed after the local timber mill is closed down, Pepe and co. appear to be out of a job. Chaos and dire consequence ensue.

However, the ever positive and curiously content Pepe always embraces the ripple in the landscape and sees change as an opportunity with stoic but (for us) amusing results. By ‘ripple’, this includes affairs, axe murder, mysterious beasties, burning car, and visiting cult-like singing psychic Jaakko (Marc Gassot) who has some demonic master plan for the numbed residents resigned to their and their town’s fate. As the synopsis says, nothing seems to phase Pepe, “as though he knows some profound truth about existence”. This is the takeaway for the viewer too; discovering that key to personal enlightenment. Or perhaps this whole affair merely represents good verses evil – whatever ‘good’ is. It is all highly symbolic and subjective.

Like many a deadpan delivery from this Nordic region, far more is ‘said’ in the action-reaction of the characters than their often sparse dialogue. However, Myllylahti’s comic tragedy seems to breathe more than other like films then settles, in between jolting incidents or striking colour punctuations (like Pepe’s bright skiing suits or flames against the white snow). These jarring visual moments threaten the status quo and define the next chapter in Pepe’s crumbling existence, reminding him (and us) that nothing is forever. In a sense there is a perceived melancholy to the whole affair, with the sudden disappearance of characters implying how Pepe and the like should cherish those things that are important to them and let go of all others. Only Pepe is beginning to worked this out.

The ominous presence at play also conjures a sense of the supernatural, especially when Pepe and friends encounter what looks like an old-fashioned fireball like you might find after a lightning storm, the explanation for which never really materialises. This begs the question as to whether anything we are witnessing is actually real or a figment of the lead character’s imagination, and it is through this dreamlike stance that Myllylahti’s quite mundane narrative keeps flowing. The ending is also a big surprise, and like much of what goes before is significant, if only you can decide how? The only stable entity is the landscape surrounding all.

Indeed, Cannes winner The Woodcutter Story provides the viewer a cinematic experience to reflect on life’s ups and downs and what we hold dear through the sporadic absurdity, all the while bathing in Scandi scenic beauty brought to life by Arsen Sarkisiants’ stunning cinematography. To watch is to experience, laugh and ponder it seems.

The Woodcutter Story
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Fierce film reviewer and former BFI staffer, Lisa is partial to any Jack Nicholson flick. She also masquerades as a broadcast journalist, waiting for the day she can use her Criminology & Criminal Justice-trained mind like a female Cracker.
the-woodcutter-story-reviewThe Woodcutter Story provides the viewer a cinematic experience to reflect on life’s ups and downs and what we hold dear through the sporadic absurdity, all the while bathing in Scandi scenic beauty brought to life by Arsen Sarkisiants' stunning cinematography.