“A White, White Day” and the Madness of Grief

“A White, White Day” and the Madness of Grief May 17, 2020

For a country of less than half a million people, Iceland has an impressive, if fledgling, film industry.  Only bestowing Edda Awards (their version of the Oscars) since 1999, two solidly-crafted films from their island country have made it to American shores in as many years.  Last year, the eco-fable Woman at War snagged me with its oddball, engrossing narrative.  In 2020, it’s A White, White Day.

This new feature, the second by writer/director Hylnur Palmason, doesn’t allow its viewers to settle in and get comfy.  Its opening scene, filmed by a jiggling, following camera shows us a car plunging through a guard rail on an inclement day.  Next, a stationary camera gives us a montage of a farm buffeted by rough weather through multiple seasons, the mountains behind either snow-covered or verdant.  To set us further on edge, all of this is accompanied by scraping, almost tuneless violin music.

Ingvar Sigurddson and Ída Mekkin Hlynsdóttir, grandfather and granddaughter in “A White, White Day”

With this barest of introductions, we meet a pair arriving at the farmhouse.  Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurddson) and his 8 year old granddaughter Salka (Ída Mekkin Hlynsdóttir) walk through its two structures, and we see it’s a work in progress, barely habitable.

Palmason strings us along with minimal, in-the-moment exposition.  We learn through a therapy session that the car crash killed Ingimundur’s wife many months ago.  Through a visit to the remote town’s police station, we discern that Ingimundur is on leave from his job as chief.  Eventually, too, we piece together that Ingimundur spends so much time with his granddaughter because his daughter Elín is overwhelmed by raising her newest child, but probably just as much because Elín realizes this time is keeping her father grounded and sane.

For A White, White Day is an uneasy exploration of grief, how it can push the bereaved to the narrow margin dividing sanity and madness.  In Sigurddson’s skilled portrayal, Ingimundur is a tightly bound ball of repression, only permitting emotion to emerge in his playful affection towards Salka.  (When his daughter tries to speak of her own bereavement, Ingimundur brusquely shuts her down.)

So, something’s gotta give, right?  When Ingimundur finally summons the fortitude to sort through a box of his wife’s belongings from the school where she taught – the box cannily framed in isolation, lending it an ominous power – he discovers material suggesting an extramarital affair.  From here, Palmason dials the tension higher and higher, as Ingimundur’s grief mutates into an obsession with learning the truth of his wife’s supposed infidelity.

Palmason keeps viewers almost as off-balance as his protagonist with his stylistic choices.  A discussion of marital fidelity with a friend is represented by a still-life montage of totemic items.  Palmason’s camera lingers overlong on a boulder rolling down a steep hillside, morphing in the mind of Ingimundur into the imagined trajectory of his wife’s vehicle.
Ingimundur’s farm, seen early in “A White, White Day”

Using the weather and landscape as symbols for psychic states is hardly novel, but the sudden, dangerous changes here are used effectively.  Rockslides periodically sever the village’s contact with the outside world.  Rolling fog and pelting rain can turn prosaic drives into hair-raising journeys.  (The film’s title refers to an Icelandic saying about days when land and sky blanch into one, a time when the dead can talk with the living.)

Similarly, the incomplete restoration of the farm, long in Ingimundur’s family, speaks to his precarious state.  The translucent plastic barrier that divides the indoors from pastureland in its second structure, aptly represents the thin line between civilization and wildness.

Ingvar Sigurddson, the actor portraying Ingimundur, has been a fixture of Icelandic film and television for 30 years, winning four Eddas for his efforts.  Impressively, this is Ída Mekkin Hlynsdóttir’s acting debut as Salka.  The daughter of the director, she shoulders the film’s demands admirably, since her importance to the story is second only to that of Ingimundur’s (if we don’t count the presence of his dead wife).  In Hlynsdóttir’s hands, Salka is a plausible, typical kid’s mix of affection, self-absorption, and tactlessness.

Even the music in A White, White Day carries a psychological valence.  When Salka precociously plays one of Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen (“Scenes from Childhood”) on her portable keyboard, she adds a simplistic postscript that Schumann was a composer driven mad by jealousy.  With so much to unpack in a short, almost throwaway, sequence, this is a film that rewards attentive viewing.

 

(A White, White Day is available for home streaming through arthouse cinema links like this one.)

 

(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )

 

 

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