About at the halfway point of A White, White Day, which was Iceland’s Oscar submission last year (it wasn’t nominated), a man driving along a seaside road runs over a large rock. The rock doesn’t damage his vehicle, but the man nonetheless pulls over, gets out, and examines the thing — it’s roughly the size of his head. Then he rolls it out of the road and tosses it down a hill. This man is the film’s protagonist, but the camera doesn’t follow him as he presumably resumes back to his car and along with his journey. Instead, the camera follows the rock, which tumbles down and down and down, for long than it seems geographically possible. Director Hlynur Pálmason observes its progress over the course of numerous shots and nearly lasts a full minute, which is a long time to watch a big rock do the gravity dance. Eventually, it tumbles over a cliff, splashes into the ocean, quickly sinking to the oceanic floor, for it to remain there for who knows how long. It’s one of the most striking scenes/sequences of the year, so far.
What’s continually distinctive about A White, White Day is the way that Pálmason juxtaposes his protagonist’s psychology with abstraction. The rock doesn’t represent anything in particular, apart from echoing a tragic loss that lingers over the entire film. It just takes on emotional weight that otherwise remains unexpressed, because those feelings are constantly sublimated into furious activity and pointless anger. Pálmason prepares the viewer for this offbeat approach by mostly keeping human beings offscreen for a while, devoting the film’s opening several minutes to a fixed-camera shot of an isolated house as seen over the course of months or possibly even years: through day, night, heavy rain, snow, surrounded by horses, or devoid of any life. We, at first, don’t have any idea to whom the house belongs — it’s also not even clear if its a residential house — so the sequence functions exclusively as a portrait of time passing, not for some character in particular but simply as an overall sense of existence.
Yet with all that, there is still a narrative, though. And it finally gets underway when middle-aged widower Ingimundur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson) shows up at the house with his pre-teen granddaughter, Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir). He’s turning the aforementioned house into a livable home for Salka and her mother — a big project that keeps him from thinking too hard about his late wife, who dies in a car accident that’s depicted with an eerie remove in the film’s prologue. Evidence surfaces that she might have been having an affair at the time of her death; Ingimundur, who was already on the prickly side (seeing that he’s already in court-mandated therapy sessions), soon becomes consumed with jealous rage.
It doesn’t take long for him to start stalking the man (Hilmur Snær Guðnason) he suspects was her lover, joining a soccer team that competes against his. But his tortured emotions also seep into his relationship with Salka, despite his deep love for her. A White, White Day is a film in which someone digs his own grave at gunpoint — featuring multiple scenes that sometimes plays with its symbols and relations with its characters a little too obviously. But at the same time, its so much that’s between them that comes with eerily riveting moments.
Depicting the power that misdirected grief can have in hauntingly oblique ways, A White, White Day sees the potential familial happiness between Ingimundur and Salka get engulfed and squandered in the inescapable fog that continually appears throughout the film. And it’s Sigurdsson’s volcanic performance that really carries it, not only revealing every dark crevice of Ingimundur but deftly suggests the troubled history of a marriage that we never see — essentially, he’s providing the outlines of the dead woman’s character, as reflected in his own. And while the film’s final scene feels a little counterproductive, the film’s overall power comes from the elements (vividly captured in 35mm); rooted in weather conditions that all but erase the distinction between land and sky, and in the inky darkness of a tunnel traversed by one drained, trudging figure whose weary body intermittently blocks a sliver of light barely visible at its long away end. For an intriguing study of the grieving process, A White, White Day finds a powerful melding of psychological complexion with the formidably abstract.