I’m an absolute sucker for Sven Nykvist’s chiaroscuro cinematography allied to Ingmar Bergman’s deep focus compositions. In The Silence they are welded in a chamber drama of two sisters at war: one lasciviously animistic; the other cooly intellectual until she accepts the truth of her imminent death. The 1960s were probably the height of arthouse cinema in terms of the acceptance by audiences, however minority, of abstruse narratives and we are plunged into a strange world without explanation. The sisters, Ingrid Thulin’s Ester and Gunnel Lindblom’s Anna, are travelling through an unidentifiable east European state either in the throes of, of gearing up for, war. Anna’s young son, Johan, is with them and the opening, on a train, sets the tone that we are as much inhabiting a psychological as a physical landscape; the unscrolling landscape is obviously a back projection.
In Hamish Ford’s interesting Sounds of Cinema review, he quotes Bergman as saying: “It follows Bartók’s music rather closely – the dull continuous note, then the sudden explosion.” Ford notes a ticking clock is heard at the start and end of the film (it could be a metronome in keeping with the musical metaphor), no doubt indicative of our lives’ movement toward their inevitable end. Bergman’s existential angst, which often seems mangled up in misogyny, plays out as the sisters vie for psychological supremacy. I must confess that I spent most of the film unclear on what the heavily portentous goings-on actually meant, but I was never less than engaged. Knowing Bartok didn’t help.
The film was a hit, probably because of the (for the time) explicit representations of sex. Ester masturbates whilst Anna witnesses a couple having sex in a theatre and seduces a waiter for the same purpose. I’m sure that this was the reason the film was successful with audiences though it was to Bergman’s chagrin:
One is always glad when a film is a success. Be then, when I discovered why it was a success, and how many of the people who were going to see it were saying furiously they’d never again go and see an Ingmar Bergman film, I was terrified. (Bergman on Bergman, Björkman, Manns and Sima, 1973: 180)
I’ll take his statement at face value, though it should be noted that the relative explicitness of arthouse cinema was one of the reasons why it became so popular in the post-war period. As I wrote in Introduction to Film (which is going cheap on Amazon at the moment!):
Although art-cinema’s increasing popularity was relative, and was always far below the mainstream’s, there is little doubt that the presence of (female) nudity in Summer With Monika (Sommeren med Monika, Sweden, 1953) helped establish director Ingmar Bergman as a favourite.
Films such as this helped break the censor’s stranglehold. The nudity would not have raised many eyebrows in un-puritanical Scandinavia. Because the nudity was not obviously sensational, and the film was received as art (putting it, in cultural terms, on a similar level as the nude of Renaissance painting) and consumed by a middle-class audience, it was harder to justify it being censored. In addition, these films, produced abroad, had no obligation to the Production Code. (Lacey, 2016: 118)
Even if I finished The Silence unsure of what I’d experienced there are some moments of direct emotional power. For instance, when Ester has an ‘attack’ (I’m guessing she has TB) and rails against death. I don’t think the strength of the scene was accentuated by the fact the ‘grim reaper’ is abroad great numbers worldwide at the moment due to the pandemic; the position of the shot, at the head of her bed, and Thulin’s performance are enough to make it terrifying. The film is available on MUBI for another four days.
One of the magazines freely available at GFF is The Skinny and I read an interview with Mark Cousins about his 5-part Women Make Film which screened in the last few days of the festival. Cousins points out that people who haven’t seen many films made by women often generalise that “Women makes films about relationships” or “Women make films with more empathy”. He’s right of course. This kind of generalisation is damaging and stops many films directed by women for being seen as films by directors who are great filmmakers and who can make all kinds of films. However, it’s also true that when women write and direct films they sometimes do create narratives that have a strongly gendered perspective. Agnes Joy is a ‘comic maternal melodrama’, written by Silja Hauksdóttir, Gagga Jonsdottir and Jóhanna Friðrika Sæmundsdóttir. It’s directed by Silja Hauksdóttir as her second cinematic feature after several years working in television. I should also point out that the story idea came from Mikael Torfason, a novelist and film writer.
Rannveig (Katla M. Þorgeirsdóttir) is a woman in her forties who we first meet at a family/clan gathering where she is searching for her 19 year-old daughter who is supposed to be entertaining the party by playing the violin. But Agnes (Donna Cruz) is hungover and reluctant. Rannveig’s problems are several. As well as Agnes she has to deal with Einar (Þorsteinn Bachmann), her husband who seems no longer interested in anything except watching Netflix and a mother who has retired from running the family business and now demands her daughter’s attention. Rannveig now has to run the family business, a small distribution firm. Here, she has lost interest but finds herself at loggerheads with the staff who want to employ cheap migrant labour (unionised and un-regulated). When she visits the surgery to get some sleeping pills she is angered when she receives a lecture by the young (female) doctor about the symptoms of early menopause. When Agnes announces that she doesn’t want to go on the long-planned holiday to the Philippines it seems like the last straw.
The disruptive element in the narrative is the arrival of a new neighbour, Hreinn who comes to borrow an electrical extension cable. Iceland has a population of less than 400,000 but produces a range of films and TV programmes. The same actors appear in several projects and must be easily spotted out and about. Hreinn is played by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson who appeared in all episodes of the first two series of Trapped, the crime fiction series shown internationally. Agnes Joy makes Hreinn into a jobbing actor and allows him to be recognised as in the cast of Trapped. This postmodern touch is ironic since Katla M. Þorgeirsdóttir as Rannveig is also in all the episodes of Trapped, but she’s playing the owner of a business not an actor. I’m not sure how the Icelandic audience copes with this but it must be strange. Anyway, Hreinn appears looking not unlike a mid-career Jack Nicholson (The Witches of Eastwick 1987?) with stubble and a kind of tousled charm. Rannveig and Einar invite him to a barbecue and the booze flows. Mother and daughter are vulnerable.
I won’t spoil all the plotlines. As the film’s title implies, Agnes has at least equal screentime as her mother. There doesn’t seem to be any discrimination towards her as an adopted daughter. The proposed Philippines trip is the only indication as to her background. The conflict with her parents is mainly down to her wish to leave school without passing all her exams. So far, Agnes has spent most of her free time working/hanging out at a local store with her friend Skari, who doesn’t seem too adventurous. The one aspect of Agnes’s identity that is foregrounded is her body image. Agnes is a powerfully built young woman, something which the script is careful to see as a positive feature. Unlike Skari, Agnes does have ambitions, the first part of which is to get out of the small town of Akranes and eventually move to Rekyavik. Leaving school is the first step. In one scene we see her seemingly asleep in class while the teacher tries to engage his students in a close analysis of the structure and writing style of the Norse sagas. It seems like a commentary of some kind on contemporary Iceland.
Agnes Joy is a conventional narrative with some darker moments leavening the predominantly comedic tone. The script is interested primarily in Rannveig and Agnes and the men are simply narrative agents to help create the situations in which the women’s stories can be developed. Nothing is particularly surprising but the comic situations work and the overall effect is that of a crowd pleaser. I certainly enjoyed it.
‘Iceland: Shining Northern Lights’ was one of GFF20’s festival strands this year with 12 titles on offer – an impressive array of films from such a small country. I managed to catch three of them, all good. This second title after Pity the Lovers, was in some ways the most familiar because it stars Ingvar Sigurdsson, the first Icelandic actor to make an impression on me with his lead in Jar City back in 2008. I was delighted to find that he was present for the screening and he proved to be an entertaining guest. In Jar City he played a rather grumpy police officer, a role he repeated (although less grumpy) in the popular TV crime fiction series Trapped (2015-19). He has 81 acting credits, including several Hollywood roles and not all of them police officers, but in A White, White Day he appears as what the synopsis refers to as an ‘off-duty police chief’ in a rural community.
The film opens with a misty wintry scene, a day when it is hard to distinguish between earth and sky. From behind we watch a car career off a remote road, through the safety barrier and crash unseen below. We are then shown a house in a rural location and through a leisurely montage of similar static shots it is renovated/re-built over time and with significant changes to doors, windows etc. and the horses in the fields around it. This turns out to be the home of Ingimundur (Sigurdsson) a widowed police officer spending his time on the house as part of the grieving process for his lost wife. Ingimundur is struggling to come to terms with his loss. He has colleagues, friends and family to support him but he seems closest to Salka, his young grand-daughter, played by the daughter of the film’s writer-director Hlynur Palmason. It is an astonishing performance by the little girl and in the Q&A Ingvar Sigurdsson was full of praise for how she helped him with his role.
This intriguing opening might be the beginning of a crime fiction but in the Press Notes, the director tells us something else:
I’ve never thought about genres, I know very little about them. I don’t think I’m that conscious about where the film is going, but for me A White, White Day was about two kinds of love. Love that you have for your children or grandchildren, which is simple, pure and unconditional and then another kind of love – a love you have for your partner, your lover, wife etc. That is something completely different, it’s more complex, intimate, animalistic and something quite unique that you don’t have with anyone else.
This statement pushes the reader into thinking about the film in a different way. I do feel that having read through the Press Notes and re-run scenes from the film in my mind’s eye, I now read it differently. I seem to have watched several films recently which all seem to be ‘art films’ making use of genre elements and structures and, by doing so, frustrating audiences (see recent posts and comments on The Lighthouse and Little Joe). Like those films, A White, White Day was shown at Cannes in 2019 and will get a UK release from Peccadillo Pictures (date not yet confirmed). I wonder if it will cause the same consternation? At Cannes, Ingvar Sigurdsson won the ‘Rising Star Award’ which is ironic for someone with his great experience and previous acclaim. Around the festival circuit over the last year the actor and the film have been nominated for awards many times, winning on several occasions. The film’s arthouse credentials are clear. It is director Palmason’s second feature after the similarly acclaimed Winter Brothers (2017). Both films feature the cinematography of Maria von Hausswolff from Denmark and editor Julius Krebs Damsbo. The music in the new film is by Edmund Finnis and Palmason’s work with his actors and this trio of creatives has created a film that works primarily as a character study about the grieving policeman.
No spoilers here but I want to point to some of the ways in which camerawork and editing help to create a sense of Ingimundur’s feelings. The camerawork is at moments simply expressionistic as in the montage of static shots of the house and the sense of time passing slowly or the view from the house through a porthole. The mise en scène isolates Ingimundur in several scenes, especially at various social and family gatherings where it often seems that Salka is the only companion he seeks. He has been required (I surmise) to undergo some counselling from a psychologist and these sequences are edited in distinctive ways. When he is talking to the psychologist via a video link and loses control, the camera pulls back to show him attempting to break the connection by attacking the computer and the power and signal sources.
Having said this, it is impossible to not read certain incidents as making references to genre narratives. When a rock has fallen on the road near to where his wife’s car crashed do we wonder if it’s a sign that someone is attacking him? When he rummages through a box of his wife’s photographs and finds one that perhaps shouldn’t be there do we think of a crime fiction/thriller narrative? The whole narrative sometimes feels like a ghost story and the stories Ingimundur tells Salka seem to point to Norse mythology. Having spent a long time trying to write this piece, I feel that the film is much richer than I experienced at the time and I can’t wait to see it again. Do watch out for it – highly recommended!
To label a film ‘charming’ is often to damn with faint praise but this is an excellent light romantic comedy, made with genuine wit and intelligence. After so many ‘dark’ or leftfield Icelandic comedies, it’s a pleasant surprise to find one so different. Perhaps it is Maximilian Hult the Swedish director of this Nordic co-production that makes the difference?
Óskar (Björn Thors) and Maggi (Jóel Sæmundsson) are brothers with opposite views on developing relationships with women. Óskar, the older at around 40, seems diffident in the extreme, even when he seems to have re-kindled an emotional contact with Anna (Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir), a local vet at the practice where he takes his pug Otto. Maggi has a new girlfriend every few months, seemingly unable to hang on to any of them for any length of time. The film’s plot has an unusual narrative mechanism. The brothers at first have separate apartments but Maggi loses another girlfriend and in this case his home. At the same time, Óskar decides to swap homes with his father and stepmother and moves back into the family home. Maggi soon finds both a new apartment and various new girlfriends but most of the narrative concerns Óskar.
Much of the comedy surrounds the antics of two young teen goths, both called Danni, who turn up at Óskar’s new home and become besotted with Otto. Óskar accepts them as dogsitters and generally treats them like grown-ups (a praiseworthy trait in many ways – but liable to disaster). Maggi has a rather different relationship with the 17 year-old sister of one of the Dannis. Of course he didn’t realise how old the art student was. If I detail just one of the comedy moments it might give you a flavour of the film. The two Dannis find a packet of cigarettes and a lighter but don’t really know how to light a cigarette and announce that they must be ‘expired’. It shouldn’t work but it’s an original idea and in the context it does (see in the trailer below).
There are elements of the family melodrama here as well. The brothers have lost their mother and don’t 100% get on with their stepmother. Perhaps they have a stronger bond between them than with prospective girlfriends? There is at least one ‘drama’ moment. I don’t know how well the director knew Iceland before he started work on the script but the film ‘feels’ Icelandic on the basis of Icelandic narratives I’ve come across. There is a concern for the lives of the elderly as well as those in their thirties and the social gatherings have a distinctive tone.
I’m not aware of any UK deals for Pity the Lovers which is a shame. The problem would be to sell an Icelandic romcom to a UK audience. Once in their seats in a cinema I’m sure those audiences would enjoy the film as much as I did. It is quite long for a romcom at 105 mins., but I feel the pace is well judged. Also it doesn’t follow all the romcom conventions – another reason to enjoy it?