After being thrilled by the excellent A White, White Day the other week, a correspondent wrote to tell me she wished all films could be Icelandic from here on out. She should be happy enough with this week's MUBI premiere Echo, which is technically 56 Icelandic films in 76 minutes, snatching a value-for-money record previously contested by the 98-minute Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and Michael Haneke's 100-minute 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance. (Also in the mix here: Ruben Östlund's early film Involuntary and the mordant tableaux of Roy Andersson.) Writer-director Rúnar Rúnarsson presents thin slivers of human activity (camera locked-off, no shot longer than a minute or two tops) extracted in the run-up to Christmas; these may be intended as contemporary nativity scenes - one does feature three wise junior-school men - or the movie equivalent of opening windows on an advent calendar. The vignettes vary (a few of them have the look of documentary, rather than staged drama): the first three, by way of example, show a car wash gearing up for the day's trade, a search-and-rescue team heading into the mountains, and a young mother nursing her child. Later postcards show a farmhouse going up in smoke, immigration officials storming a church, and emergency hotline operators taking a report of domestic violence. Still wish you were here?
A second question comes to mind: what does Echo amount to? Inevitably, anybody anticipating a straightahead narrative will be bashing their brains out circa clip nine or ten. (The film premiered at Locarno, a festival that tends not to trade in common-or-garden multiplex fare.) Still, certain themes, perhaps national obsessions recur: the coldness of the weather, farming snafus, the mixed fate of the country's overseas residents. Evidence, too, emerges of growing schisms between Iceland's men and women, its leisured youth and seniors burdened with one responsibility or another, between those who can afford to turn up their noses at whale meat and the damnably long queue stretching out of the foodbank on the night of Christmas Eve. The advantage with this approach is that it never allows the film to be boring. If one scene doesn't do it for you, another will be along any minute with a whole new set of characters in place. Yet there are equally limitations evident, stemming from the strict policy of editorial neutrality Rúnarsson sets in place from the opening frames.
Echo has been very carefully composed, cinematographer Sophia Olsson tweezering in isolated pockets of life in the corners of her every widescreen frame. Yet there are none of those pop-up surprises or funny gotchas Östlund and Andersson trade in: each tableau starts and finishes in more or less the same place. No one shot is allowed to assume greater weight than its neighbours; I included those earlier VFM calculations to flag up how Echo hails from that coolly conceptual, quasi-mathematical branch of contemporary arthouse filmmaking. Only belatedly does Rúnarsson allow any emotion to bleed through the images, as in an impromptu bus-stop reunion between a school bully and one of her victims, and a (apparently unfaked) minor miracle observed in passing towards the end. Still, however stimulating its cinema has been of late, there are surely minutes in modern Iceland that pass without undue incident, when the dramatic highpoint is - as the penultimate vignette depicts - the binmen showing up. Perhaps Echo is best approached as a cinematic field survey, gathering samples from various points and seeing what we might discern from them about the Icelandic national character. The conclusions you'll draw probably won't deviate wildly from those you'd have drawn from being exposed to a Sugarcubes video circa 1989: that this country remains restlessly eccentric. But there's so much energy, invention and life pulsing through Icelandic cinema at the minute that these snapshots may provide the basis for 56 separate features by the end of the decade. Watch this space.
Echo is now streaming via MUBI UK.