Culture

Death, love and family in Iceland

BEIRUT: The North Atlantic is unlike the Mediterranean, and those who defy the arctic gales can seem unlike other humans. Northerners do sometimes leave an impression on their southern cousins, of course - Viking pillage, Norman cathedrals and, more recently, Nordic noir.

First explored in Scandinavian emulations of hard-boiled detective fiction, northern darkness has since been projected in cinemas, broadcast on television and exported for adaptation - where Anglo-Saxons soften the razor-sharp edges of dragon-tattooed heroes, lest they intimidate the milquetoast gnomes of mass marketing.

Hlynur Palmason’s “A White, White Day” (“Hvitur, Hvitur Dagur”) is a successful hybrid of Nordic noir and art house film conventions. Palmason’s sophomore feature debuted last spring at Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique. Somehow it was not acknowledged to be the selection’s best film, but its powerful confluence of writing and acting, scoring and cinematography, comedy and rage won it the Prix Fondation Louis Roederer de la Revelation.

Palmason, who scripted and directed the film, gestures lyrically to some Nordic noir conventions, but audiences won’t find much sympathy for detective fiction or poetry in his protagonist Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson).

A gruff small-town cop trying to get on with things after losing his wife in a car crash, Ingimundur is at one point shown sorting through a box of personal effects, given him by his grief-stricken sister-in-law. He fishes out some library books, one of them a thick thriller by “Noah Miller.” He runs his eyes over the back cover, mutters some of the superlatives printed there, and snorts derisively.

Inside joke aside (Miller is half a team of American screenwriting twins), it’s not the book that holds the widowed cop’s attention but the old-fashioned slip of lending-library paper that drops out of it.

The last name written in the column of borrowers for all three of the books, he notices, isn’t that of his wife but “Olgeir Karl Olafssen.”

Ingimundur returns to the box and, in an envelope of photos taken in his wife’s primary school classroom, he finds a picture of Olafssen with his little boy on his shoulders. The cop’s mind begins to worry over the meaning of this evidence. The balance of the story is concerned with the private investigation he pursues.

This unconventional procedural drives “A White, White Day” but it may not be what lingers afterward. There’s a lot that might.

One thing is the well-crafted writing, which consistently errs on the side of showing over telling. Much must be inferred about Ingimundur. He’s the senior cop at the local police station, but it’s only his unexplained sessions with Georg (a counselor-therapist of some kind) and ample free time to look after his 8-year-old granddaughter Salka (Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir) that inform viewers that he’s been put on leave due to his wife’s death.

Ingimundur’s first session with Georg provides the film’s principal exposition. The cop resents the interrogation and his responses are increasingly impatient.

“Do you have good relations with your brother?” Georg asks.

“They’re not bad,” he eventually replies, “so I guess they’re on the good side.”

“Do you feel lonely?”

“Not when I’m with my granddaughter,” he says.

“Who are you?”

“Ingimundur ... Father. Grandfather. Policeman. Widower.”

Clearly Ingimundur regards this to be utter foolishness. In this he resembles a long genealogy of North Atlantic men - plain-spoken, emotionally repressed, hostile to the inconvenience of feelings, let alone voicing them.

Ingimundur and Salka’s relationship stands at the middle of the film’s exploration of child-rearing and family relations generally.

The cop’s foil in the film is his younger brother Trausti (Bjorn Ingi Hilmarsson) who smiles as easily as Ingimundur scowls. He’s also more reckless, as he demonstrates when he accidentally ignites a flare in the midst of a housewarming party Ingimundur’s thrown. When his older brother asks if he’s ever cheated on his wife, Trausti replies without hesitation. “Of course. It’s completely natural.” His attitude is completely alien to Ingimundur’s severed relationship with his own wife.

Between her infant boy and mourning her mother’s loss, Ingimundur’s daughter Elin (Elma Stefania Agustsdottir) has good reason to subcontract child care duties to her dad. The chemistry between Salka and her granddad is convincingly natural, not because she shares his grim disposition, but because her light manner and musical laughter offset it - while braining a suffocating salmon against a tabletop, for instance.

Palmason’s is a lean, engaging story, and more besides.

Thanks to the northern locations and photography, it’s likely art house devotees will be affected by cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff’s depiction of rural Iceland, an eerily fluid mingling of rural landscape and climate.

After a fogbound opening sequence (much of the best noir begins with the “crime” that propels the plot), the camera settles into a fixed-frame shot of a house in a field. The shot becomes a single-frame time-lapse montage, nicely accentuated by the attenuated score of Edmund Finnis.

You’ve no idea yet what this structure has to do with the plot, but - with hills sometimes visible in the background, draped in fog, lashed by rain, swathed in snow, with the island’s small sturdy horses trotting through the frame - the sequence leaves you with a strong impression of the weight of northern weather and the diversity of light and color reflecting from it.

The structure’s original function is ignored (a wrecked electricity pylon in the backyard implies the place was used by Iceland’s electricity provider, suggesting a wink at Benedikt Erlingsson’s great 2018 feature “Woman at War”). In fact the house is central to the story, being the place that Ingimundur’s remodeling for Salka’s family.

There are a number of sequences like this in the film, where lyrical camera work inserts itself amid more conventional sequences of dialogue and plot complication. It’s never just pretty pictures, but harnessed to the task of Palmason’s elliptical storytelling.

Erratic weather, road closures and errant boulders occupy significant portions of the film, as if forensic photos of an accident scene were natural accompaniment for a conversation about infidelity.

As Ingimundur’s colleague Bjossi points out at one point, this weather makes things busy.

Hlynur Palmason’s “Hvitur, Hvitur Dagur” (“A White, White Day”) will be projected at 8 p.m., Thursday, July 25 at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil with French subtitles.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 24, 2019, on page 12.

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