In thick fog, a car drifts through the winding roads of the Icelandic countryside before inexplicably veering off the verge, through the crash barrier and down into oblivion. Almost lyrical in its luminous bleakness, it’s a precise and devastating opener for director Hlynur Pálmason’s aptly-titled second feature A White, White Day.
The following shot is a series of still images of a house, denoting an indeterminate span of time. As night follows day, the semi-derelict construct is variously shrouded in cloying mist, enveloped in darkness, fringed by a distant mountain range, and visited by semi-wild ponies. The sequence – which must last only a few seconds – seems to stretch endlessly and alluringly, putting one in mind of Abbas Kiarostami’s last, lovely film, 24 Frames. What connects the images of the car and the house is not yet made explicit, but the feeling of tragic, deep-seated grief is clear.
Following the loss of his wife – who we surmise died in the crash – stewardship of the house has fallen to Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson), while his role as protector has shifted into the frequent care of his young granddaughter, Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir). As Salka watches deranged children’s TV (so shriekingly bonkers that invades Ingimundur’s psyche), her grandfather reluctantly attends counselling. He is typically recalcitrant, refusing to give anything but the tiniest sliver of insight into his interiority.
The film’s third act is its most eventful and absurdly funny, following Ingimundur’s discovery that his wife cheated on him with one of his football buddies. His revenge is brilliantly dry in its humour but incredibly serious in consequence. It threatens to tip such a measured film into full Gothic territory, ostensibly at odds with its otherwise realist sense of psychology and setting, though on reflection that is perhaps the point.
Throughout the course of the film, that first image of the car lazily drifting over the edge lingers, haunting Ingimundur. An abstracted motif of a CCTV monitor watching the road where his wife died represents Ingimundur’s psyche endlessly imagining the site of her final moments, watching as a distant protector but unable to act. As Ingimundur’s tumbling grief finds no floor on which to land, the colour white colonises the film’s frame like a suffocating cloud, shrouding Ingimundur in sublime, formless grief.
A White, White Day is Ingimundur’s film through and through, centred on Sigurdsson’s intensely gruff, brooding performance. But Hlynsdóttir’s Salka gives him a run for his money. Her energy pairs with Sigurdsson’s in a way that contrasts with his baked-in emotional repression but which is tied to him with palpable familial chemistry. Salka’s tears after Ingimundur snaps at her are truly heartbreaking: the sting is written plainly across her face, a betrayal of affection made no less profound by its banality. As he toys with a rock he finds in the middle of the road, knocking it over the precipice and watching it plunge into the freezing water below, we realise it is only those tears of betrayal and affection that may stop him following.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm