Premiering at this year’s 70th Locarno International Film Festival, Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason’s debut film Winter Brothers is a bold, chilly, dark work with occasional glints of humour, like the sparks that fly of the picks of the workers in the opening scenes.
Shapes move in the darkness, the noise of heavy industry throbs on the soundtrack and a young man is called upon to play a magic trick – making a bottle of homemade hooch appear. The man is Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove). Emil works with his older brother Johan (Simon Sears) in what appears to be limestone mine in an isolated wasteland somewhere in Denmark. The inherent other-worldliness of heavy industry is exploited to the maximum.
The workers could be on another planet – a Blake’s 7 planet made only of rubble, dust and snow. Or for that matter, this could just as easily be a prison movie, as their lives are constrained by their work and routines, bored in their chilly joyless dormitories, with the kind of electric fires that make you feel cold It’s perhaps for this reason that Emil makes some extra money flogging his booze and why – at least initially – the others are eager to drink it.
Money and DIY inebriation isn’t his only interest though. There’s a girl Anna (Victoria Carmen Sonne) who he spies on through her window and whose panties he steals. And there’s a rifle – an M1 – which Emil begins to obsess over, watching Army tutorial videos on an old VHS player, which resemble something out of Monty Python. There’s something of Freddie Quell from The Master in Emil’s Heath Robinson style home brew and the health risks are similar. When a worker falls ill as a result of drinking a bottle, Emil finds himself out of favour with the boss (House of Cards’ Putin Lars Mikkelsen) and his fellow workers. Even the reliable fraternal bond frays as, Anna finds Jonah’s hunky charms more attractive than Emil’s scrawny need.
Pálmason, who wrote the screenplay, subtitled the movie ‘A Lack of Love Story’, underlining Emil’s loneliness and longing as the central concern. And Crosset Hove’s performance is a mixture of vulnerability, scorn and magic. He’s like Stan Laurel accidentally wandering into a Tarkovsky/Lynch filmscape. However, the lack of love is mirrored by a lack of story. There’s a determined refusal to hit well-worn narrative beats: Chekhov’s famous gun is introduced almost specifically not to be fired. Violence simmers and the occasional detonations from the mine have no cathartic value. A semi-naked scrap between the brothers is brilliantly convincing, halfway between slapstick and fratricide.
In place of story we increasingly get Emil-inspired flights of fancy and portraits of the workers in their working environment. His magic tricks are copied by the film, but the sleight of hand dexterity can’t quite make up for an essential slightness. This is most obvious in Anna’s role – another lack here – who has to stand in as the single object of desire, without any context, any background, or anything to do short of be ogled at.This is no fault of Carmen Sonne, who shines in the one scene where we get to actually see her as a human being. Maybe that after all is the point. Despite the chill, there’s something warm at the heart of Winter Brothers, which makes it well worth seeing.