A White, White Day (Hvítur, hvítur dagur)

Iceland (2019) Dir. Hlynur Palmason

One of the worst things for a grieving person is to discover their partner had a secret life in the wake of their passing. There are many different ways of processing this news and moving forward, anger more than likely to be a primary reaction. It’s avoiding letting it consume you that is the real struggle.

Police chief Ingimundur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) is mourning the death of his wife in a car accident. Currently on compassionate leave, he is doing up a house for his daughter Elin (Elma Stefania Agustsdottir), who often leaves her 8 year-old daughter Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) with him for company, as they get along extremely well, and with a newborn baby in the house, it takes some pressure off Elin.

When belatedly going through a box of his wife’s things, Ingimundur finds evidence that she was possibly having an affair, suspecting someone from his football team, Olgeir (Hilmir Snær Guðnason). Whilst he tries to ignore it, his curiosity gets the better of him and the more Ingimundur investigates this, the angrier he gets, the more he struggles to control his rage, alienating everyone around him.

A White, White Day will be a polarising film, not for its content but for its presentation. I’ve not seen any of his prior work but watching this film it appears Hlynur Palmason is from the obtuse school of filmmaking, letting the images do the talking and leaving the audience to work out what they mean. Naturally, this won’t be for all tastes which will disappoint anyone who finds the plot enticing and expects a taut revenge thriller.

There may be elements of this in place but they are buried under a slow burning tale of grief and existential uncertainty that takes its time to unfold, so if you’re not a fan of deliberately paced cinema I suggest looking elsewhere for your thrills. In true “arthouse” fashion, things that aren’t said speak louder than what is, intertwined with moments of gravid fancy to frame the direction of the narrative.

Palmason sets out his stall with an audacious five-minute opening sequence designed to  weed out the impatient, beginning with 90 seconds of following a car round a winding mountain road until it suddenly crashes through the barrier and over the side. The next three-and-a-half minutes show the exterior of an empty building as numerous seasons pass, the only presence of life being ponies wandering in and out of shot.

If you are still watching, we learn this is the house Ingimundur is fixing up for his family, whilst the car accident was the catalytic death of this tale. Information and exposition are drip fed to us throughout the film, and is over 30 minutes before any seeds of a plot are planted. The only established points in these early stages are Salka’s bond with her grandfather and Ingimundur’s reticence to let himself grieve properly.

Sessions with his therapist Georg (Þór Tulinius) are stilted, uncomfortable affairs due to Ingimundur’s monosyllabic answers and clear disinterest in being psychoanalysed. From seeing this, it is perhaps no surprise that Georg – or rather his office and computer – is the first victim when Ingimundur reaches eruption point. Until then, he is a taciturn and superficially responsive chap to most people except for Salka, where he assumes the role of protector of her feelings.

Even in this relationship, a breaking point is eventually reached though it is not Salka’s fault, she is caught in the crossfire following a violent outburst involving Ingimundur’s police colleagues. At every stage of Ingimundur’s exponential breakdown, Olgier escapes his rage, aside from a rough tackle during football, until the inevitable showdown, but Palmason isn’t interested in being straightforward in how this plays out, carrying on with a befuddling but cathartic denouement.

Despite its obliqueness, the opening with the car suddenly going over the mountain side is a genius way to depict an accident without being obvious, both surprising and wrong footing the audience in one foul swoop. Another poetic scene involves a montage of shots of everyone in the cast, looking into the camera with disapproving faces, airing shortly after Ingimundur attacks his police colleagues.

Moments like these illustrate Palmason’s clear intention to make films on his own terms and if that means subverting even the most basic narrative structures or conventions to the detriment of the audience’s understanding then so be it. Yet, I don’t feel he is being pretentious about it either, making it easier to appreciate rather than wonder the point of it. Only a scene of Salka watching a cheap kids TV show with a bleak message about death comes across as incongruous though I’m sure it makes sense to others.

Regardless of whether I understood everything Palmason was saying, it is clear he is a filmmaker for whom mood and atmosphere are paramount, so when something shocking does happen, it shatters the peace like a rock thrown through a glass window. The misty landscapes are as foreboding as they are picturesque, crucial to painting an environment of misery and loneliness where bad thoughts and grudges can fester and communication can be easily lost in the wilderness.

Likely a familiar face from TV drams and others films, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson delivers a towering, career best performance as Ingimundur, his unassuming demeanour slowly ebbing away as he concedes to his grief stricken anger and suspicions, tortured by the spectre of the unknown. Acting as his anchor even after his eruption is Salka, another commanding turn to enjoy from natural first timer Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir, proving an emotional firecracker in the heavy scenes.

Films like A White, White Day can be frustrating even for those us used to slow, dense cinema, from wanting more from the story and less symbolism. A fine line is straddled here in that some esoteric touches work more than they don’t but for me, second gear needed to come sooner in this quietly affecting, deviously compelling outing.

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