Echo (Bergmál, Iceland-France 2019)

One of the Echo sequences that tells a specific story

When I started watching Echo, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Is it a documentary, a comedy, an avant-garde film? I hadn’t attempted to read anything about the film at all, wanting only to give it a try before it left MUBI in the UK yesterday. I was fascinated by the first few shots – each beautifully composed and framed by a static camera on a tripod, allowing a simple scene to play out in a single take of a minute or two. One of my first thoughts was of Roy Andersson’s films but although there are elements of comedy in some of the scenes/shots in Echo, there is none of Andersson’s playing with his colour palette or his penchant for a particular kind of actor and make-up and a style of playing. Instead, each scene features what appear to be ‘real’ situations. I couldn’t discern any overall narrative or any unifying principle and I did begin to wonder if this sequence of scenes would last for the whole length of a feature. I chickened out and glance at MUBI’s introduction but as soon as I saw the director was Rúnar Rúnarsson, whose début film Volcano (2011) impressed me greatly, I went straight back to the film, knowing I was in safe hands.

A more intimate scene uses music to hint at a story

Eventually a form of narrative does become clear in the film and we realise that the scenes all refer to the Christmas period in Iceland. In fact, the film was shot from the start of Advent in December 2018 through to the start of 2019. There are 56 ‘vignettes’ and no character appears more than once. The whole offers a ‘mosaic’ of Iceland, its people and its culture across 79 minutes. I can’t imagine how much preparation Rúnarsson put into this. Many of the ‘performers’ are non-professionals (though there are some established actors too) and I imagine that the scenes were scripted and rehearsed. In the Press Notes, Rúnarsson tells us that one scene with a small child took many hours and several takes. The film presents aspects of Icelandic culture familiar from film, TV and literature. The long darkness of Iceland in December is captured in a scene featuring a young Black man (possibly an athlete from North America) sent by his coach to a solarium to ’embrace the light’. Several scenes feature music of different kinds, often diegetic but also some scoring by Kjartan Sveinsson. Where some scenes feature activities familiar from many parts of the world, others are distinctly Icelandic – cooking ‘fermented fish’ in the garage because of the smell or a son on the phone to his parents about why he won’t be there when they are eating whale meat. A couple of scenes refer to the influence of links with Poland, evident in recent co-productions of Icelandic films.

One of the more enigmatic scenes

Some of the transitions from one scene to another work as comic/satirical observations, some are smooth, some more abrupt. Similarly the shot size alters from the intimate in a small room to long shots in which we see scenes played out with several characters and a staging in depth. I know I won’t be alone in remembering one particular scene in which a young man, a drug user, visits a clinic where the two young pharmacists/nurses prepare him for Christmas and assure him that they will be there on the 24th/25th. It’s a simple ‘three shot’ around a table in the corner of the room and I found it very moving. I won’t spoil any more vignettes and they are all worth your attention. One of the strengths of the film is that the scenes feature the very young and those in the final years of life and every age in between. Rúnar Rúnarsson’s most obvious collaborators are cinematographer Sophia Olsson, editor Jacob Secher Schulsinger and sound designer Gunnar Óskarsson. Along with Kjartan Sveinsson they are all long-time collaborators and contribute a great deal to the success of the film but there is also a larger overall crew responsible for this fascinating undertaking.

I’m not sure if Echo will appear in MUBI’s ‘Library’ offer, but if you can find the film, I recommend it highly. I would have loved to see this on a big screen and I hope the film gets seen as widely as possible. I’m not sure Volcano or Rúnarsson’s second film Sparrows got a UK release. He’s a talented director. Come on UK distributors give him a chance. Echo is a French co-production so all the details and Press Notes are accessible via Unifrance.

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