Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Dec 23, 2020 6:54 am 
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INGVAR SIGURDSSON AND IDA MEKKIN HIYNSDOTTIR IN A WHITE, WHITE DAY ]

Nordic reckoning

Hlynur Pálmason's first feature, the 2017 Winter Brothers, certainly made a strong impression. It's hard to forget the ear-splitting Danish limestone plant with the macho, inarticulate men covered with white powder (for they were having white, white days too). the two brothers engaged in an almost to-the-death brawl naked, the moonshine made from chemicals. But while the director's style and ambition were evident, it was just all a bit weird and hard to see the whole point of. Pálmason's sophomore effort, set this time in the director's native Iceland, is much more successful, so much so that it has drawn high praise from critics and even gotten on some of their annual best lists. While the first one was more to be endured than enjoyed, this one gives considerable pleasure, both for its content and it's sheer bold accomplishment.

A simple explanation for this success is that it's more mainstream in some basic, satisfying ways, without sacrificing originality. Pálmason hasn't in any sense sold out. The new movie still has very distinctive stylistic touches - and includes surprisingly many of the original concerns, and it's just as tensely atmospheric, but in a framework where the feelings are more accessible and real to us. The shift to Iceland was a wise move. The feel for the place - a remote, coastal town near the director's origins in Höfn, which he has moved back to after over a decade in Denmark - is palpable. Some of the craziness makes sense now because of the isolated, far North location, an austere and beautiful world sometimes so bleached out by sun or the region's billowing fog, the sky and land become indistinguishable. According to an opening quotation when it's like that, the white, white day, then the dead can talk to the living.

This isn't a limestone factory but machismo still dominates. There is the anger, the male-to-male conflict, the heavy awareness of masculine desire. There is the need to punish wrongdoing. Pálmason has made it all understandable in a more mainstream context by setting up a story about widowhood and loss and adultery, almost a mystery story setting with a main character who's a cop, albeit a semi-retired one. There's also a semi-sweet relationship between a man and his eight-, nearly nine-year-old granddaughter that's made compelling through terrific acting by both the experienced, venerable Ingvar Sigurðsson, for whom Pálmason wrote the part, as Ingimundur, the granddad, who's also the bereaved and wronged husband and on-leave police chief; and the young Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir (who is the director's daughter) as Salka, Ingimundur's granddaughter. This grandfather-grandchild relationship is one of the most intense and memorable such connections in recent movies.

Pálmason stays honest by much of the time not telling us much and revealing what he does reveal slowly, which makes A White, White Day a mystery story and a puzzle picture. For openers, there is a wild night drive that ends in a car fling off a curve and down a cliff. We are not told what this is. Later there is a lengthy sequence of fixed-camera distance shots of a group of buildings at different times of day, month, year, several years perhaps: we're not told exactly when or where. This depiction of weather, light and seasons in a place goes on in two sequences, longer and more inexplicably than it would be likely to in a conventional film. Either you like it or you don't. It's never explained, though we soon enough find out what the place is and start to piece together what the sequences mean.

What we get right away is a sense of the elements, a glorious austere Icelandic nature, the cold, the sun, the scruffy local horses gathering about, then disappearing. Only later we find out the car was Ingimundur's wife having a fatal accident two years earlier, and that the clump of buildings are a property Ingimundur is turning into a habitable dwelling - actually quite a nice one with large, sliding insulated glass wall-doorways - for his granddaughter and her family. Before the doors are set up, one of those scruffy horses ambles right into a main room.

Ingimundur - the name belonged originally to a tenth-century Viking warlord - is an aging but powerful man, in body and spirit. He is grieving, and he is angry. The work on the house is the only present goal that he will acknowledge to the local therapist he consults with, apparently court-appointed or required by the station. This individual isn't sympathetically depicted, but asks a series of clueless and flailing questions about who or what Indimundur thinks he is. He'll only say basic things like "A man," "a father," "a grandfather," "a widower," and "a cop" - and that he's building a house. It will not be a huge surprise later when in fury at the therapist he tears apart and throws around the screen and receiver this man's annoying, irrelevant help comes in on on a day when bad weather keeps him from his office.

The unexplained seasonal shots of the unidentified buildings show Pálmason incarnating Inbimundur, we could say, his there-ness and unwillingness to explain. So also with a later series of brief individual shots of objects, household and natural, and key figures in the story, skipping around, also unexplained, which feel like they may be evidence related to a crime. Even more so with the moment when Ingimundur's nimble Land Rover hits a large rock on the road. The vehicle seems quite unharmed, but he stops it, leaving Salka in the car, and rolls the rock off the road and off the hill. D'Angelo of AV Club has counted the number of separate shots (13) used to follow this rock, somewhat improbably, all the way down into the ocean. Does it mean anything? It shows the protagonist's relation to the elements, his way of speaking by gesture.

By that point we know Ingimundur had long suspected that his wife (Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir) was hiding something from him. Now as he rallies from his grief and turns it into anger he thinks she cheated on him and he is looking for the suspect. Leading up to this, still not explained to us, pulling out documents, photographic or electronic, as a cop would do, using the police station facilities, mulling over things. It seems there may have been some hostilities at the station, that recent relations with his fellow cops have been touchy. It's also understood that Ingimundur has been heavily grieving and somehow out of commission, but now reemerging. Now as he comes back he also starts playing soccer with a team whose opponents include the man he suspects, Olgeir (Hilmir Snær Guðnason). There are repeated scenes of tough middle-aged men showering in a row, waist-up frontally nude, evoking the macho maleness of the first film.

We see a little of Ingimundur's grown daughter Elín (Elma Stefanía Ágústsdóttir), and it's important, and elemental. But most importantly while all this other stuff is going on there is always and only Salka, the granddaughter. The relationship is wonderfully intimate and natural, like friends and comrades, they laugh together and, notably, in one of the most memorable sequences, scream together in a tunnel - it's a scene that evokes Norwegian painter Edvard Munch's The Scream. There is blood. But before this Ingimundur has at least partially shattered even his intimate bond with Salka by the incident of the telling of a scary bedtime story that is way over the top into nightmarish terror and hostility that shows Ingimundur's rage is ungovernable and free-flowing, even inexplicably in the direction of the girl.

When he traps the adulterer, leading toward solution to the mystery and retribution, it's one of the most conventional sequences in the film and - intentionally - not really satisfying. What is satisfying in this film is the mystery of Ingimundur, but here it's obvious what's going on. Yet the embarrassment and lack of satisfaction saves it, as does the sequence with Salka in his car and then the haunting final scene.

Pálmason makes his inability - or unwillingness - to tell a totally coherent tale into a virtue in this movie. It allows him to capture the ungovernable nature of male rage and grief that, like the white of the sky that blends with the white of the land, harmonizes with the stark but self-renewing Icelandic landscape. If some see the revenge story as merely banal and the rest inarticulate, so be it. But it's evident that this director is becoming important and interesting. (His DP Maria von Hausswolff, who won awards for her work on Winter Brothers, is a gifted collaborator. The score by the British composer Edmund Finnis is quite original, and occasionally springs forward.)

A White, White Day/Hvítur, hvítur dagur, 109 mins., debuted at Cannes International Critics Week May 2019 with Ingvar Sigurðsson winning best performance there, and played in at least 22 international festivals including Karlovy Vary, Toronto, Zurich, Hamburg, Busan, London, followed by Film Movement's online release Apr. 17, 2020. It was selected as the Icelandic entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards, but it was not nominated. Metascore: 80%. On Vudu and Amazon Prime.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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