The Silence (Tystnaden, Sweden, 1963)

Diametrically opposed sisters

I’m an absolute sucker for Sven Nykvist’s chiaroscuro cinematography allied to Ingmar Bergman’s deep focus compositions. In The Silence they are welded in a chamber drama of two sisters at war: one lasciviously animistic; the other cooly intellectual until she accepts the truth of her imminent death. The 1960s were probably the height of arthouse cinema in terms of the acceptance by audiences, however minority, of abstruse narratives and we are plunged into a strange world without explanation. The sisters, Ingrid Thulin’s Ester and Gunnel Lindblom’s Anna, are travelling through an unidentifiable east European state either in the throes of, of gearing up for, war. Anna’s young son, Johan, is with them and the opening, on a train, sets the tone that we are as much inhabiting a psychological as a physical landscape; the unscrolling landscape is obviously a back projection.

In Hamish Ford’s interesting Sounds of Cinema review, he quotes Bergman as saying: “It follows Bartók’s music rather closely – the dull continuous note, then the sudden explosion.”. Ford notes a ticking clock is heard at the start and end of the film (it could be a metronome in keeping with the musical metaphor), no doubt indicative of our lives’ movement toward their inevitable end. Bergman’s existential angst, which often seems mangled up in misogyny, plays out as the sisters vie for psychological supremacy. I must confess that I spent most of the film unclear on what the heavily portentous goings-on actually meant, but I was never less than engaged. Knowing Bartok didn’t help.

The film was a hit, probably because of the (for the time) explicit representations of sex. Ester masturbates whilst Anna witnesses a couple having sex in a theatre and seduces a waiter for the same purpose. I’m sure that this was the reason the film was successful with audiences though it was to Bergman’s chagrin:

“One is always glad when a film is a success. Be then, when I discovered why it was a success, and how many of the people who were going to see it were saying furiously they’d never again go and see an Ingmar Bergman film, I was terrified.” (Bergman on Bergman, Björkman, Manns and Sima, 1973: 180)

I’ll take his statement at face value, though it should be noted that the relative explicitness of arthouse cinema was one of the reasons why it became so popular in the post-war period. As I wrote in Introduction to Film (which is going cheap on Amazon at the moment!):

‘Although art-cinema’s increasing popularity was relative, and was always far below the mainstream’s, there is little doubt that the presence of (female) nudity in Summer With Monika (Sommeren med Monika, Sweden, 1953) helped establish director Ingmar Bergman as a favourite.

‘Films such as this helped break the censor’s stranglehold. The nudity would not have raised many eyebrows in un-puritanical Scandinavia. Because the nudity was not obviously sensational, and the film was received as art (putting it, in cultural terms, on a similar level as the nude of Renaissance painting) and consumed by a middle-class audience, it was harder to justify it being censored. In addition, these films, produced abroad, had no obligation to the Production Code.’ (Lacey, 2016: 118)

Even if I finished The Silence unsure of what I’d experienced there are some moments of direct emotional power. For instance, when Ester has an ‘attack’ (I’m guessing she has TB) and rails against death. I don’t think the strength of the scene was accentuated by the fact the ‘grim reaper’ is abroad great numbers worldwide at the moment due to the pandemic; the position of the shot, at the head of her bed, and Thulin’s performance are enough to make it terrifying. The film is available on MUBI for another four days.

 

Under the Tree (Undir trénu, Iceland-Poland-Denmark-Germany-France, 2017)

Neighbourly attentions

Director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson co-wrote the script with Huldar Breiðfjörð which sets up an interesting ‘neighbours at war’ situation: the tree of the title is the catalyst. There is a secondary narrative featuring marital breakdown but this is not successfully integrated with the central theme. The link between the two is the embittered mother, Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir), who’s aching for a fight with her neighbours. She is the mother of the cyber-philandering Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) whose wife kicks him out; the cyber-philandering is Atli masturbating watching a video of himself having sex with an ex; that’s an excellent metaphor for a failing marriage.

Inga is traumatised by a missing, presumably by suicide, son and apparent envy of the fortysomething attractive woman, Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir), who their neighbour, Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann), has taken up with. Monika Lenczewska’s cinematography beautifully captures the pallid Icelandic light that Eybjorg tries to sunbathe in; the shading tree is clearly a problem. While the stupid, but easily done, escalation of the dispute is well portrayed, Atli’s necessary return home, and his attempts to get access to his daughter, don’t sit comfortably in the scenario; his is merely an additional problem. Roy points out that both narratives dramatise a breakdown in relationships but marriage and neighbourliness, to me, are very different. This could be my lack of contextual knowledge as the film is intended to be a satire on dysfunctional Icelandic society; in The Guardian review Sigurðsson is quoted as saying: ‘his inspiration for Under the Tree was Iceland’s high rate of “neighbour rage”’.

Certainly in the finale of the film we enter disturbing territory as the blackly comic nature of ordinary people getting angry and standing their ground reaches an a conclusion that belongs in the horror genre. However, the scene, set in a well-tooled garage, seems to come from another film and would have been more effective if I had been convinced that the narrative was satirising the bourgeois mores that emphasise property rights over communal living. Actually, it’s just occurred to me that as Atli and his wife live in communal housing, they have house meetings to discuss various issues, that that is exactly what the film was doing. The latter is shown not to be any better as a meeting degenerates into gripes about loud sex and corruption. So I was being ‘dim’ apparently.

The film is, by the way, worth seeing.

 

A White, White Day (Hvítur, hvítur dagur, Iceland-Denmark-Sweden, 2019) – GFF1

The living dead

The title comes from an Icelandic proverb that suggests when the weather makes the day ‘white’ the dead can speak to the living. Despite my caption to the image, it’s not a zombie movie though the excellent Ingvar Sigurdsson, as Ingimundur, is barely living suffering as he is from grief at the loss of his wife. He directs his energies at renovating an isolated house, introduced with interesting non-narrative shots (that is, they are not designed to move the story forward) showing the changes of weather and in the building, and his 9-year-old granddaughter, brilliantly played by Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir.

I seem to have hit a vein of Nordic films at festival centred around grief: the Swedish Koko-di Koko-da at London and the Finnish Dogs Don’t Wear Pants in Leeds; both released in the UK this month. My impression of this film was that it suffered from a first-time director’s penchant for building a film around set pieces at the expense of the whole. This proved to be incorrect insofar writer-director Hlynur Palmason also directed the well-received Winter Brothers (Vinterbrødre, Iceland, 2017). One such sequence is the eerie opening which follows a car on a fog-filled road; another is a confrontation between Ingimundur and a man he suspects… (no spoiler).

Unlike the two other films, I didn’t get a sense of how damaging to the psyche grief can be; although, to be fair, the others worked through metaphor: horror and sado-masochism respectively. A White, White Day is more realist which means to milieu needs to be clearly delineated. This was a problem as I wasn’t clear on why the protagonist was required to look after Salka so often; his daughter apparently couldn’t cope.

That said, there is plenty in the film to keep the interest; not least the stunning cinematography by Maria von Hausswolff. Iceland’s landscape lends itself to the uncanny, as it has a brooding beauty that connotes (to me) an elemental feeling. The music, too, brilliantly adds to the otherworldliness, which perfectly reflects Ingimundur’s state to mind. I was reminded of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s superb Oscar-winning score for Joker, but this one was created by British composer Edmund Finnis, his first soundtrack.

I mentioned the non narrative montage of the house above; there’s also a scene of a rock tumbling down the hill. On it goes and goes and goes with no affect on the narrative. It’s a bold moment that, in retrospect, you realise its foreshadowing what the protagonist is going to do.

This was my first film at the Glasgow Film Festival (my first visit) and it was a good start.

 

 

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Koirat eivät käytä housuja, Finland-Latvia, 2019) – LIFF2

Finding life on the margins

Another film festival another Nordic film about grief – see Koko-di Koko-da. However Dogs Don’t Wear Pants doesn’t quite play out as expected. After a brilliant intro when protagonist Juha (Pekka Strang) is traumatised by loss, the narrative moves on a decade or so to find him still unable to function socially. He stumbles into a commercial BDSM dungeon and thinks he finds a way to reconnect with his loss.

Spoiler alert! It seems the film is going to suggest that Juha can be cured of his grief by his relationship with a dominatrix, Mona (Krista Kosonen), in the sense that it will take him to the ‘edge’ and so will recognise that his life is worth living after all. (Incidentally, Krista Kosonen’s appearance and icy demeanour reminded me of Major Kusanaga from Ghost in the Shell). However, co-writer and director J.-P. Valkeapää makes it far more interesting as he suggests the ‘perversions’ are actually potentially better than a bourgeois lifestyle; the moment Juha makes a key decision we are given a close-up of his discarded watch, a symbol of conspicuous consumption.

As is appropriate, many of the scenes are excruciating to watch (having had a tooth removed recently didn’t help my experience) though not sexually titillating. The widescreen compositions are often gorgeous, enhanced by the lurid lighting of the BDSM den. Characters are sometimes framed as if in the margins by doorways further enhancing the psychological position of the characters.

Juha has a young daughter, Elli; the intro is an inversion of Don’t Look Now‘s (UK-Italy, 1973) with the mother as the victim. A narrative strand deals with Elli’s ‘coming of age’ but it doesn’t investigate her trauma and my sympathies were more with her than her dad. She starts a relationship with a boy of her age but this, too, is fragmentary. Similarly, Mona’s motivation for her lifestyle is under-developed: on the one hand it could be argued she doesn’t need one, on the other, because she also seems to be traumatised given her tearful breakdown toward the end of the film, we do need an explanation. Also, I’m not sure the title works particularly well, as its quirkiness does not sum up the film. I also get sense that the male character development is deemed to be the important trajectory, whilst the females are ‘sounding boards’. I’m not saying all films have to be even-handed in terms of gender representation but because Dogs hints at backstories for the women it should develop them more.

Despite these criticisms, when the film is released (apparently September 2020 in the UK), if you’re not too squeamish, I recommend a viewing.

Koko-di Koko-da (Sweden-Denmark, 2019) – LFF3

Going into the woods

Apparently writer-director Johannes Nyholm asked journalists not to reveal the plot in their coverage of the film however it is very difficult to write about the film without giving away details so go and see the film (though it’s not due to be released in the UK until February) before you read this as spoilers abound.

This is the second film I’ve seen recently that deals with parental grief at the loss of a child; the other was The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belguim-Netherlands, 2012). The latter dealt with the trauma in a realist fashion using melodrama to articulate the emotional pain. The milieux of that film, a country band, gave plenty of opportunity for music, which was superbly done. Koko-di Koko-da uses horror as a vehicle to articulate grief; early in the film a character references Freddie from The Nightmare on Elm Street series as a clue to understand the recurring (apparently) dream narratives the protagonists suffer. There’s also an element of Run Lola Run (Lola rennt, Germany, 1998) in the repeating narrative; whilst Lola relived her trauma three times, the six experienced here felt excessive until the denouement. Koko-di uses an arthouse narrative technique where the end of the film throws into focus what’s gone before and there’s an epiphany. I won’t spoil what that is.

The ghouls are Grimm fairy tale type characters that are truly unsettling; they appear to be products of Nyholm’s imagination but have a convincing ‘collective consciousness’ quality to them. They are brilliant bogeymen. Of course, these tales are primarily aimed at children but the context here is entirely adult as the nightmare of a child’s death is brilliantly staged at the start. The bulk of the film is three years later when the couple are camping and end up in the woods. The cyclical nature, the vicious circle, of grief is brilliantly articulated by the repetition of their nightmare. In The Broken Circle Breakdown the narrative is a spiral down and expresses anger at the American ban of gene cell therapy, which may have saved the child. Hence, the American music context of the film: Johan Heldenbergh’s Didier loves the country but rails against Bush’s relgious convictions that prevent research.

Koko-di isn’t situated in a particular time and place, though the Nordic woods are particularly spooky with the bleached-out light, and is more effective for it. The pain has a universal quality that intensifies the nightmare and it’s clear that suffering the death of a child is likely to get you waking up screaming.

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð, Iceland-France-Ukraine, 2018)

Close to nature

We have Revolution Extinction to thank for raising the profile of immanent climate catastrophe and films like co-writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War can only help, if it gets seen. Kermode points out that the protagonist, Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), has much in common with the Mission: Impossible‘s resourceful Ethan Hunt; and this film is more thrilling because it deals with a potent threat to our existence.

Erlingsson’s previous feature, Of Horses and Men, was an affectionately surreal portrait of Iceland, and it is that country that is the focus of Woman at War; but here it’s land that stands in for the Earth as it is the planet that is under threat. If only we had a sense of the fragility of the ecosystems, as the astronauts of High Life do, serious action would have been taken years ago to ameliorate climate change. Like the folks of Extinction Rebellion, Halla decides to take responsibility for protecting the planet.

The script, co-written with Ólafur Egilsson, is superbly constructed and seamlessly integrates allegorical elements into the narrative; Halla wishes to adopt a Ukrainian 4 year-old, representing hope for the future. The non-diegetic music transpires to be diegetic as the folksy three piece, and Ukrainian trio of voices, often appear in the scene. I can’t recall a non-comedy being so Brechtian with the music and while it serves to remind us we are watching a film, I think it also serves to remind us that the issues raised are real. Incidentally, the music (particularly the singers) is fabulous.

The final image is truly chilling that caps an entertaining thriller with a dose of reality that might even give climate change deniers pause for thought (actually, it won’t as they live in an ideological landscape that denies reality).

Obviously Geirharðsdóttir’s performance is key to the success of the film and her 49 year-old protagonist reminds us that we need unconventional heroes to save us; take a bow Greta Thunberg. Geirharðsdóttir also seamlessly plays her twin sister.

I can’t recommend the film enough because it was both immensely entertaining and up front in portraying the risks that face us. This isn’t an ‘infinity war’ because the battle isn’t going to go on much longer unless we start wining it very soon.

And Breathe Normally (Andið eðlilega, Iceland-Sweden-Belguim, 2018)

Lost in translation

Ísold Uggadóttir’s first feature, which she also scripted, won the Best World Cinema Competition at the Sundance Film Festival and highlights the importance of the screenplay in filmmaking. And Breathe Normally‘s script just doesn’t quite hold together as narrative difficulties are often elided by moving on quickly to the next scene. However, this is a minor criticism as the film is a highly involving story about a refugee (Babetida Sadjo) from Guinea-Bissau (due to her sexuality) marooned in Iceland as her passport is fake.

It’s also about Lára (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir), a single mum who also happens to be gay, who’s struggling in poverty and her path crosses Adja’s (the refugee) when she takes a job as a border guard. What struck me is the way Uggadóttir, whose direction is excellent, manages to suggest that social class is the key element rather than race, sexuality or gender. Despite idiots like Tory James Cleverly dismissing I, Daniel Blake because it’s fiction, only the wilfully blind are unaware that inequality in many societies has reached unsustainable levels (inequality is never right but was sustained by the welfare state, ease of credit and expanding economies). What unites the disadvantaged is usually social class; this is not to say ‘identity politics’ are not important, but that Marx’s call for class consciousness to fight exploitation is as valid as ever.

There are few institutions in the film as it is a social realist ‘slice of life’. We see border security at work and some of the workings of the deportation process; we are also shown, briefly, Lára’s son’s school. However it is clear that she is almost as trapped by society as Adja; ‘almost’ because for Lára there is some hope, ironically, in the border guard job: by saving herself and her son she has to oppress others.

Uggadóttir shot the film in Reykjanesbær, a town that houses the international airport in Iceland. It is shown to be ugly and she explains that the film avoids the tourist clichés used to represent the country. It is a bleak film (I won’t give away whether the ending offers hope) that gives a convincing glimpse into the lives of refugees (and the poor) who are often demonised whilst they are invariably the victims. Netflix.