Friday, April 17, 2020

A White, White Day, from Iceland

Iceland is only five hours by air from North America, but its closest neighbors are Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Their most recent international Oscar suggests the national temperament is as stone-faced and glacial as their geography. The slow burn is about as slow and reserved as it gets in screenwriter-director Hlynur Palmason’s A White, White Day, which opens virtually today in major markets.

Palmason does not do a lot of explaining, but it is clear Ingimundur still deeply mourns his late wife, who died prematurely in an auto accident, caused by the damp and misty climate. It appears the police chief has stepped down to some extent, but he still regularly puts in time at the station. He also attends regularly mandated counseling sessions, but his lack of enthusiasm is clearly evident. The saving grace of his life is Salka, the granddaughter he adores (for whom he shares day-to-day up-bringing responsibilities, due to yet another family tragedy).

Then one day he stumbles across evidence his beloved wife was having an affair. It really bothers Ingimundur, because it confirms suspicions that he tried to ignore at the time. As he grows increasingly preoccupied with her infidelity, the senior policeman starts stalking her presumed lover and exhibiting markedly more aggressive behavior.

White, White has been pitched as a thriller, but viewers will be forgiven if they just don’t see it that way. Palmason’s meticulousness and austere discipline are impressive, but also exhausting. There a lot of scenes focusing on people (often Ingimundur) sitting in a parked car, quietly brooding—a whole lot.

Basically, White, White lives by Palmason’s aesthetic and dies by Palmason’s aesthetic. The performance of veteran Icelandic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson is truly masterful, but there are limits to how far he can pull the audience through such a frosty viewing experience. In a weird way, he is also undermined by recent events, because one of his big eruptions comes during a video-conference meeting. Instead of being shocked, a lot of viewers are likely to think: “yeah, that was me during my 3:00.”

Still, there is nothing cheap about the poignant chemistry Sigurdsson forges with Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir, playing young Salka. Thanks to their work, the central grandfather-granddaughter relationship dynamic is complex, believable, and deeply felt.

This film is truly Nordic to a fault. The vibe and atmosphere are as chilly as the windswept coastal landscapes. The market for a film like this is limited under the best of circumstances, but especially so these days (you will find no cinematic “comfort food” here). However, fans of Spartan auteurist filmmaking will be transfixed. Recommended exclusively for that select, self-identifying demo, A White, White Day opens virtually today (4/17), in conjunction with select art-house theaters, including the SIE Film Center in Denver.