Category: Nordic Cinema

GFF19 #12: Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð, Iceland-France-Ukraine 2018)

Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is the ‘Woman at War’

This was the most enjoyable film I watched in Glasgow. Most of the time I was on the edge of my seat cheering. The hero of this fairy tale, as the writer-director calls it, is Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir). Halla is a woman in her forties, living alone and seemingly happy with her ‘crusades’ (and the name ‘Halla’ refers to one of the last Icelandic outlaw’ characters in the 17th century)’. Halla has three passions – leading a choir, taking care of the planet and protecting her local landscape. It’s these last two which motivate her declaration of war on heavy industry and the power company. Her heroes are Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. The film’s narrative begins with the one woman war already well under way. A large metal smelting plant has been built close to Halla’s town and power is brought to it by overhead lines which snake across the mountains. The Chinese are said to be interested in investing in the smelter, so protecting it is high on the government agenda. Halla has already managed to cut the power supply more than once and now she has bigger plans. Meanwhile, the company and the government have brought in security forces, the CIA and the latest surveillance technologies to stop her (though they don’t actually know who is causing the power losses yet). But Halla is very fit and resourceful and has some clever ideas. She might not be a superhero, but she is a tough adversary.

The narrative has a key twist which I won’t reveal and it has a sub-plot which goes some way to explaining the film’s co-production status. Halla applied some time ago to adopt a little girl orphaned after the fighting in Ukraine. This is a bureaucratic process that appears to be heading for a resolution just as Halla is about to launch her biggest attack. She desperately wants the child but how would her arrival affect Halla’s campaign? 

Halla is a popular ‘woman about town’. Surely she can’t be a saboteur?

The film works because of the wonderful central performance and the comic understanding of co-writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson whose previous film was the cult hit Of Horses and Men (Iceland 2013), which I also enjoyed (and which also featured Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir). The comedy is in the way Halla evades capture and outwits the security forces, but pleasure is also generated by the careful planning procedures and exciting action scenes. I note from going back to a film still from Of Horses and Men, that Erlingsson seems to have repeated the idea of a lone Spanish traveller on a bicycle who is a kind of ‘silent witness’ to all the trouble Halla is causing (and since the authorities don’t know the identity of the saboteur, this poor Spaniard is arrested on the grounds that he is an alien). I wonder if this character played by Juan Camillo Roman Estrada is set to appear in Benedikt Erlingsson’s future films? The other big attractions in the film include the Icelandic landscape (beautifully presented in ‘Scope by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson) and the music. Halla has her own musical accompaniment physically in place with her as she tackles her mission, a wonderful touch. The euphonium is an inherently comic instrument for me. Icelandic films seem to thrive on a certain kind of dark humour. If you enjoyed Rams and Under the Tree, you should certainly enjoy this. 

Woman at War was screened in Critics Week at Cannes in 2018 and it has been acquired for UK distribution by Picturehouses so it should appear later this year. Don’t miss it. The main trailer for the film gives away the twist so here is a much shorter US teaser:

Crisis (Kris, Sweden 1946)

Jack (Stig Olin) and Nelly (Inga Landgré) after the local dance. This feels like a Jean Renoir composition.

Crisis was the first feature by Ingmar Bergman as director after he worked as a scriptwriter and assistant director to Alf Sjöberg on Torment in 1944. It has just left MUBI’s streaming offer in the UK and is otherwise available from Criterion. Adapted by Bergman himself from a play by the Danish writer Leck Fischer this is a first film with several clear influences and as one critic noted, Bergman was still very much a ‘theatre director’ at this stage. I’m not a fan of Bergman’s later films in the 1960s and beyond, the ones that are usually most acclaimed, but I have enjoyed the handful of his earlier films that I’ve seen and in particular Summer Interlude (1951) and Summer With Monika (1953). I tried to approach Crisis with an open mind.

Nelly with Ulf (Allan Bohlin)

The plot outline of the film is very familiar and a staple of popular entertainment. The setting is a remote small country town by a lake in which Nelly (Inga Landgré), a beautiful young girl of 18, lives with her foster-mother Ingeborg (Dagny Lind) and a lodger, Ulf or ‘Uffe’ (Allan Bohlin), a dull veterinarian in his 30s. No sooner has the town been introduced via a voiceover narration than the ‘inciting incident’ occurs. Nelly’s mother, Jenny (Marianne Löfgren), returns from Stockholm to entice her daughter to join her in the city. That night at a local dance, Jenny will meet Jack (Stig Olin), a smooth-talking, street-smart young man who has followed Jenny from Stockholm. Is he Jenny’s ‘toy-boy’? Unaware, Nelly agrees to go to Stockholm. The country mouse goes to town and Ingeborg and Uffe are bereft.

Ingeborg (Dagny Lind)(left) with Jenny (Marianne Löfgren)

If there is a ‘crisis’ in the narrative, it is most likely a ‘crisis of conscience’ as this is essentially a moral tale. Having said that, there is a dramatic climax in Stockholm which eventually leads to a conventional resolution back in the country town. I take the film to be a melodrama and apart from admiring the beauty and vitality of Nelly, I felt most strongly for Ingeborg. The interest in the film is for me in the mixture of stylistic devices. I’ve already mentioned the narration which begins and ends the film. There is also the use of some very loud and dramatic music at moments of drama and music is also a crucial factor in the crude distinction between generations at the dance when a recital in one part of the building is interrupted by the dance band next door – this is the moment when Nelly and Jack first get together. There are similar symbolic moments elsewhere using expressionist lighting and simple effects such as the criss-crossing of railway tracks in a dream. Trains feature heavily in the narrative and at first I thought it was an almost Ozu-like obsession. But the trains are used functionally as night trains transporting the characters between the city and the country town and also simply as dramatic mise en scène with clouds of steam, whistles and other sound effects.

This publicity shot might not appear in the film like this but it does indicate some of the ‘in depth’ compositions

The cinematography is by Gösta Roosling who had experience of four or five features. How much of what we see might be down to Bergman’s ideas? The overall visual style appears to be an amalgam of German Expressionist ideas and French poetic realism alongside some deep-focus outdoor material with long shots that is more reminiscent of neo-realism (which at this time had barely been exported from Italy). Some scenes are nicely composed in depth and the melodrama use of mirrors and windows is noticeable, especially in Stockholm where Jenny runs a beauty parlour. The dramatic climax takes place on what I assume is a studio set with lighting that cries out film noir. Perhaps there is no clear defining style, but the film is always interesting to look at. One long shot shows Nelly in bed suddenly forced to rise when the door is opened (see above). We see her naked from the rear clutching the sheet to her chest. The inference is clear but I do wonder how such a shot would have been received by censors in the UK or US in 1946. I don’t think Bergman’s films came to the UK before the 1950s when they were sometimes cut for dialogue.

One of the more expressionist shots in Jenny’s beauty parlour at night

Given that this was a first feature, Bergman must already have built a reputation since there seem to be several official press pack photos from Svensk Filmindustri (SF) in circulation suggesting that there was expected to be considerable interest in the film. This joins the other early works by Bergman that I have enjoyed.

In the YouTube clip below you can see the scene including the image at the head of this post.It begins with the local dance before Jack and Nelly sneak off. I think it is supposed to be a ‘day for night’ sequence. The music at this point is more for the possible romance than the impending melodrama (indicated by the dialogue?). Nelly is wearing the dress Jenny brought her from Stockholm. (It’s worth watching the extract to the end.)

 

And Breathe Normally (Andið eðlilega, Iceland-Sweden-Belgium 2018)

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Trapped in Iceland

Ísold Uggadóttir’s first feature, which she also scripted, won the Best World Cinema Competition at the Sundance Film Festival and highlights the importance of the screenplay in filmmaking. And Breathe Normally‘s script just doesn’t quite hold together as narrative difficulties are often elided by moving on quickly to the next scene. However, this is a minor criticism as the film is a highly involving story about a refugee (Babetida Sadjo) from Guinea-Bissau (due to her sexuality) marooned in Iceland as her passport is fake.

It’s also about Lára (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir), a single mum who also happens to be gay, who’s struggling in poverty and her path crosses Adja’s (the refugee) when she takes a job as a border guard. What struck me is the way Uggadóttir, whose direction is excellent, manages to suggest that social class is the key element rather than race, sexuality or gender. Despite idiots like Tory James Cleverly dismissing I, Daniel Blake because it’s fiction, only the wilfully blind are unaware that inequality in many societies has reached unsustainable levels (inequality is never right but was sustained by the welfare state, ease of credit and expanding economies). What unites the disadvantaged is usually social class; this is not to say ‘identity politics’ are not important, but that Marx’s call for class consciousness to fight exploitation is as valid as ever.

There are few institutions in the film as it is a social realist ‘slice of life’. We see border security at work and some of the workings of the deportation process; we are also shown, briefly, Lára’s son’s school. However it is clear that she is almost as trapped by society as Adja; ‘almost’ because for Lára there is some hope, ironically, in the border guard job: by saving herself and her son she has to oppress others.

Uggadóttir shot the film in Reykjanesbær, a town that houses the international airport in Iceland. It is shown to be ugly and she explains that the film avoids the tourist clichés used to represent the country. It is a bleak film (I won’t give away whether the ending offers hope) that gives a convincing glimpse into the lives of refugees (and the poor) who are often demonised whilst they are invariably the victims. Netflix.

LIFF#5: The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura, Finland 1952)

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Beauty in the arctic

The White Reindeer is a weird amalgam of Finnish folklore and what appears to my untutored eyes to be ethnographic filmmaking. However, a quick glance along the casts’ filmographies shows that most of the cast are actors and their adeptness in the frozen north with reindeer and skis is obviously born of their culture. The glimpses of Sami life are probably the most fascinating aspect of the film from the reindeer races, the weddings and reindeer herding. Director Erik Blomberg (who also coproduced, co-wrote and photographed!) brings visual flare to what must have been a tough shoot. Only occasionally is the mise en scene compromised; for example, at the climax there are already ski-tracks visible – presumably from previous takes.

The narrative, a mythic tale designed to demonise (literally) sexually voracious women, is less than gripping. The startling images make up for the lack and Bergstrom seemed to me to use the top of the frame for more action than is usual. This gave a sense of the immense landscape; one exceptionally spectacular shot was of a herd of reindeer flowing into the distance (below).

Eyes are drawn to the top of the frame by the flowing reindeer

In addition, the transition scene – the cursed woman turns into a white reindeer – uses negative effectively. The soundtrack, which I take to be Finnish/Sami folksongs, adds to the eerie otherworldliness of the images though the sound was compromised by distortion in the bass (cinema’s fault – the Vue, Leeds – not the film’s). The White Reindeer was, for me, eye-opening drama in which the milieux is more important than the narrative.