Friday 3 July 2020

In a lonely place: "A White, White Day"

It somehow feels cosmically right that as the world gets drawn ever more forcefully in the direction of extremes, Chile and Iceland - the hot and the cold of it, the north and the south - should take up the mantle of the most magnetic filmmaking nations on the planet. Via Pablo Larraín and associates, Chile had already established itself as party central before May's Ema; if the lockdown release schedule has confirmed anything, it's that we have to look in the general direction of Reykjavik not just for new stories, but new and clear-eyed ways of telling them. The County, the reissued Woman at War, and now A White, White Day, which opens with an enigmatic road accident in the whiteout conditions suggested by the title before settling in to observe, from a distance, a renovation project on what looks like an old weather station overlooking a cliff. Eventually, the fog lifts. The renovation is being undertaken while on leave by local police chief Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson, from Of Horses and Men and Jar City) as a means of coping with the recent death of his wife, although it comes to a crashing halt when he uncovers evidence that his beloved had an affair before her passing. With nothing else to do with his days, our man finds himself a new project: he sits and broods, a lonely old man in a half-finished house, alternating between beating himself up and plotting retribution, and either way going crazy. As an image of male obsession, it would be bracing even before you factor in the clifftop windchill.

The approach writer-director Hlynur Palmason takes is resolutely understated, suggestive: he lets us feel the time this man has on his hands, and the wide-open space he's suddenly isolated himself in. The film's tragic heft derives from our growing awareness that Ingi has more constructive ways of filling it. Regular therapy sessions, for one, although the copper's tendency to clam up when his feelings are interrogated makes one wonder how effective it can ever be. He plays five-a-side football, too - stuck out on the wing, natch - but this becomes markedly less fun when he learns one of his fellow players was his wife's other lover. And he clings onto a nurturing relationship with his granddaughter (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir), but you and I both know some men have a terrible habit of trampling on that which might be beneficial or life-giving, any prospect of a better future; from the grim bedtime story he inflicts on the girl mid-woes, and the decidedly overwrought kids' TV show he lets her watch while banging around on the roof, we sense he's perhaps less than 100% committed to his duty of care. What A White, White Day is especially clear-eyed about is watching a man taking his own eye off the ball, which is why, after that abstract opening, it develops into such a remarkably tense watch. The fog lifts just in time to see this fellow careening at speed towards an impassable brick wall; as onlookers, we spend the better part of two hours hoping he'll regain the sense and reflexes to steer out of it.

It's a film of real dramatic coups. Palmason announces himself here as an inspired writer: in retrospect, it struck me as making perfect sense that a man whose wife was killed in poor visibility should take to restoring a weather station - thereby giving himself the comforting illusion of control - though it's also rather choice that Ingi's therapist should go out of town for a conference at precisely the moment his patient begins to self-isolate. A scene of faltering online therapy is where the simmering Sigurdsson, who spends the entire first half tamped down and numb, gets to explode with rage. You might say, well, at least he's finally expressing himself, yet the jagged, less-than-childproofed imagery Palmason strews around his frames hardly reassures us. The snapshots of the dead wife's car that flash up during an idle conversation with a pal at least clue us in as to where Ingi's head is at; but you can only wince at the close-up of the thumb that's got on the wrong side of a hammer, or the sequence that follows a deadly-looking rock as it speeds down a hillside. Once nudged in a certain direction, some forces cannot be stopped: they can only roll downhill. We're headed into noir territory, towards a shotgun and a shallow grave, although the ordeal the film describes isn't even over there; we wind up with multiple endings, the first hint of authorial indecision, albeit one that gestures, in its roundabout way, to what a man has to get through to find any kind of peace in this world. When the mist descends here, it's as white as that title insists, but no less blinding - and no less lethal with it.

A White, White Day is now streaming via Curzon and the BFI Player.

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