Of Horses, Women, Men and Children: Three Icelandic Films

This I can already conclude: films from Iceland are obviously like buses. You wait for an Icelandic film to watch for years, and then within a week you end up seeing three. (Okay, I cheated somewhat for the sake of the joke – I have seen an Icelandic short film about an old man who declares war on seagulls, but I must be misremembering the details, as I can’t find it on Google.) Another thing I can conclude: I like what I’ve seen of Icelandic cinema.

A White, White Day (2019)

Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson), widowed after his wife died in a freak accident, isn’t a happy man. He looks after his granddaughter whom he clearly loves, but in his interactions with others, his brother, daughter, former colleagues at the police station and most tellingly his therapist, he barely shows any emotions. His eyes speak a different language, though: Ingimundur is confused, hurt and angry. He suspects, and later finds proof, that his wife had had an affair. Did she no longer love him? Was there something he wasn’t able to give her? Who was this woman he’d spent decades of his life with, and if he didn’t know who she was, what does that say about him?

The main motif of A White, White Day isn’t entirely new. Ingimundur is the kind of man who finds it difficult to put his emotions into words, or even acknowledge that he has them, and since the person he is closest to is his eight-year-old granddaughter Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir), he cannot exactly talk about his feelings and his fears with her. The questions he is asked by his therapist leave him confused and resentful. He isn’t used to doubt and he has nowhere to vent his anguish.

However, while the film doesn’t exactly cover new ground, it still leaves a strong impression, thanks to the two strong performances at its centre (Sigurdsson is very strong, Hlynsdóttir is exceptionally suited to her role and the two work brilliantly together) as well as director Hlynur Pálmason’s great feel for rhythm and cinematrogapher Maria von Hausswolff’s eye for images. The starkness of the landscape and fog emphasises Sigurdsson’s disorientation and sense of loss. At the same time, there is a lived-in warmth in the relationship between grandfather and granddaughter and there is some unexpectedly surreal humour leavening what could otherwise have been a dour, depressing film.

Of Horses and Men (2013)

Whatever Benedikt Erlingsson’s film about an Icelandic community and its not always easy relationship to horses is, it’s definitely not dour and depressing. Death and sex, both human and equine, are omnipresent in this loosely-connected, often comedic series of vignettes that at times feels like a more rowdy cousin to the films of Roy Andersson. Many of the human protagonists are all at least somewhat ridiculous, especially the men with their affectations of pomposity, anger issues or the lengths they will go to in order to impress a cute girl or to get their hands on some strong alcohol.

Of Horses and Men is strange, often funny and sometimes startling in its developments, such as when the young man Juan Camillo Juan Camillo Roman Estrada), who stands out in the Icelandic landscape like a sore thumb with a Colombian knitted cap, finds himself lost in the freezing tundra with only a horse for a companion, a Swiss army knife and what may well have been vague childhood memories of The Empire Strikes Back.

The individual episodes of the film never quite come together in a way that makes them into more than the sum of the film’s parts, but what Of Horses and Men may lack in terms of coherence it makes up for in personality and style. Director Erlingsson and his cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson find an often memorable visual language to tell their 81-minute shaggy pony story. However, as likeable as Of Horses and Men is, it’s not a film for everyone: as much as the caption at the end emphasises that everyone involved in making this film loves horses, some of its equine protagonists are treated less than well by the various stories – though in terms of the body count, the final tally is a draw. Human Beings: 2 – Horses: 2.

Echo (2019)

Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Echo is a strange beast: it’s an episodic film where some of the episodes are not even one minute long. Rúnarsson has made short films in the past, but the individual episodes that make up Echo often correspond more closely to flash fiction or even poetic forms such as the haiku than to short stories taking the shape of cinema. All in all, Echo is made up of almost 60 individual vignettes.

It takes a while to get into a film of that format, as you need to find a way of taking in what you’re seeing. How do the individual episodes connect? Is there a red thread, whether it is stylistic, thematic or linked to the characters? At first, we’re lost: we just get these micro-glimpses into Icelandic society at the end of a year and the beginning of a new one, but we don’t quite know what to do with them. Some of the vignettes are poignant, others are laconically funny, and yet others just give you a brief but sometimes crystal clear idea of who the person is you’re watching. There’s an unsentimental but heartbreaking sequence where an undertaker carries a coffin into a church to prepare for the service, opens it to reveal a boy of perhaps seven or eight years. A phone call comes in, the undertaker’s wife or his daughter, and they talk about everyday things, school or something, while in the foreground there’s the dead kid. Another scene has an enraged girl, perhaps 12 years old, laying into her (off-camera) gym teacher for leaving her alone when one of the boys tormented her, and the unseen teacher helplessly trying to talk her down from her white-hot anger. Yet another scene shows a woman of 30, perhaps 40 years encountering another woman at a bus stop and realising that this was the victim of cruel bullying she herself engaged with back at school.

Some scenes echo sociopolitical commentary, about government, business, refugees, others are much more intimate and personal, but while all of the scenes are over in mere minutes, a mood accumulates and themes start to form. I saw echoes of friends, colleagues and myself, of the people I pass by every day, and those echoes were emphasised by the small cultural differences. Some scenes provide a brief glimpse of unexpected beauty, and generally it’s impossible to shake the impression that Rúnarsson loves his subjects, without ever sentimentalising them. A handful of vignettes don’t work quite as well or they’re placed at a point in the film where I wasn’t yet in sync with what it’s doing, but others evoke an entire world, characters or situation that feel real and lived in, in a few dozen seconds. The longer it went on, the more Echo proved to be an intriguing, compelling and moving caleidoscope of individual glimpses that resonate with one another.

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