All nations are works in progress, but Iceland is a place in which even Nature is still experimenting. Volcanoes, glaciers, snow-topped mountains, chasms, hot springs, and a latitude that ensures whole days in summer when the sun never seems to set and days in winter when it barely shows its face. One imagines living in such an environment would have an impact on the human psyche – a view supported by recent productions of the Icelandic film industry.
The landscape and the weather are prominent features of almost every Icelandic movie but Hylnur Palmason’s A White, White Day shows what happens when one man internalises the stark, isolated aspects of life in a small community. The first scene, which features a car driving along a deserted, curving road in poor visibility, sets the tone for the entire story. We watch with a growing sense of danger, waiting for the inevitable accident.
When we meet Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson), a policeman at the tail end of his career, he’s at home mourning his wife’s death in the car we’ve just been watching. As part of his recovery he has to attend regular sessions with a psychotherapist, which he loathes. The only person he seems to have time for is his 8-year-old granddaughter, Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir). His ongoing project is to build a house for Salka and her mother – a structure that gradually comes together as the builder’s mind falls apart.
Ingimundur is a man of few words. His tactiturnity might denote a rugged, independent spirit, but it’s also the sign of an introverted personality that allows anxieties to seethe and boil over. This appears in the form of grumpiness, impatience and flashes of anger, but pressure continues to build like hot lava in one of Iceland’s volcanoes, until the eruption occurs. By this stage we should be prepared, but these scenes are played out with a startling intensity.
What makes Ingimundur uneasy is the suspicion that his late wife had been having an affair. We know from his conversations with a friend – “for some reason she was always enough for me” – he was such a devoted husband it never occurred to him to chase other women. This makes it hard for him to understand how the wife he adored could have felt so differently. His sense of betrayal drives him to pore over his wife’s belongings, including old video footage, in search of evidence. As his certainty grows so too do his feelings of pain and unrequited rage.
Ingvar Sigurdsson, who won the best actor award at Cannes for this role, is completely convincing as a man accustomed to concealing his emotions behind a deadpan mask. Even when that mask remains in place we see someone whose attempt to appear normal is undone by his inability to experience pleasure. It’s an obvious symptom of depression but we are left wondering if Ingimundur’s coldness and introversion actually drove his wife to take a lover. He may be thinking the very same thoughts, heaping blame on himself, fuelling his anger with self-loathing.
As we gather impressions of Ingimundur’s late wife she appears to be the antithesis of her husband – warm, extroverted, compassionate and funny. In losing her Ingimundur lost the being who completed his own personality, who kept his demons in check and covered for his social deficiences. In his stitched-up manner he is not only mourning her, but himself. A part of Ingimundur has died with his wife.
His involuntary response is a distaste for the life and the people around him. He disapproves of his daughter’s partner and her circle of friends. He’s contemptuous of his colleagues at the police station, and has such hatred for his therapy sessions he can barely find answers to the simplest questions.
The solution to his problems is that somebody has to be punished. The obvious candidate is his wife’s lover, but it hardly matters if everyone else becomes collateral damage.
There are few genres more riddled with stupid and exploitative themes than the ‘revenge’ movie, but A White, White Day is no Death Wish. Palmason has crafted a painstaking psychological portrait of an inarticulate man driven to extremes by his feelings of grief. The shots of a stark but beautiful landscape act as an objective correlative – to use T.S.Eliot’s term – for Ingimundur’s feelings about his wife. The agony of losing her is now indistinguishable from the painful thought of her betrayal. That which seemed beautiful is filled with hidden dangers.
Ingimundur’s anchor to reality is Salka, who bears witness to the best and worst of her grandfather. When he finally loses patience with her we know he’s veering out of control. It’s only when looking back on this film that one sees how Ingimundur’s impending breakdown has been signalled by dozens of tiny details, in a masterly feat of story-telling that takes us from a panorama of the changing seasons to the objects on a table top, to a bizarre childrens TV program that seems to comment on Ingimundur’s growing despair. It’s a journey to the brink of madness that edges forward by the smallest of steps, like walking on a sheet of ice.
A White, White Day
Written & directed by Hlynur Palmason
Starring Ingvar Sigurdsson, Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir, Hilmir Snær Gudnason, Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir
Iceland/Denmark/Sweden, rated M, 109 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 18 July, 2020