Movie Review: A psychological drama as chilly as its setting, Iceland’s “A White, White Day”

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An eerily beautiful long, foggy drive on an Icelandic spring morning opens “A White, White Day,” Iceland’s contender for this past year’s Best International (foreign language) Oscar. That drive ends with a Volvo wagon going through a guard rail — an emotionally-detached depiction of a tragedy that hangs over this Hlynur Palmason film.

That’s followed by a time-lapse sequence showing the passing of days, months and seasons as a remote barn is transformed into a house, with shaggy Icelandic ponies frequenting the yard.

With that, the tone for the picture is set — dreamy, sad and slow.

The owner (Ingvar Sigurdsson) walks a little girl (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) through the still-unfinished renovation. “Your mom’s room, lot of work to be done,” he says gruffly (in Icelandic, with English subtitles), before they gently nudge a pony that has wondered into the doorless/windowless and open-to-the-elements living room.

We can see she’s his granddaughter, but with no other information we have to wonder — “If she’s staying here, and we don’t know who was driving the Volvo, might that have been her mother?”

Hint: it isn’t. Palmason is one parsimonious poseur when it comes to parceling out basic information in this meditative, melodramatic thriller.

We only learn the old man’s name — Ingimundur — when we sit in on his therapy session with George the shrink (Þór Tulinius). Wait, what? From some very basic (and insulting) questions that gauge his mental state, we learn that Ingimundur is a cop, that he’s coping with a loss, that this might be department-ordained psychotherapy.

“Do you feel like people understand you? Do you want them to understand you?”

Eventually we figure out — not directly, mind you — that it was his wife who was in that car. Don’t get hung up on the question, “He lost a spouse in a car accident, he’s retired and he’s ordered to take therapy?” That’s a logical rabbit hole you probably have to be Scandinavian to accept.

But it’s pretty obvious that Ingimundur needs the therapy, if not in him stealing evidence and files about his wife’s accident from the office, then from the hilariously scary story he tells his eight year-old granddaughter when she asks for one at bedtime.

He suspects his wife was having an affair. He’s looking for clues. He’s got a notion of who it was. And he’s not above stalking the guy, sneaking around when he should be fetching the kid, to who knows what end?

It’s a lovely looking film, chilly (not snowy) and atmospheric. And there’s an opening title that explains what a “white white day” is good for — communing with the dead. But Palmason, who did “Winter Brothers,” has let us know right at the start that he’s an indulgent filmmaker.

That long opening car drive in the fog is topped by a rockslide that Ingimundur runs over in his Range Rover. He takes a few moments to consider the rock, and then slide it off the pavement and over a cliff. The director follows this rock as it tumbles, like a famous effect from a Buster Keaton movie, all the way down a hillside, tumbling into the sea until it settles on the bottom.

It’s a minute long sequence, with a dozen or so cuts — denoting changing camera set-ups, angles, and editing. Was there no one on set, or in all of Iceland, who could say, “Dude, symbolism is fine, but seriously?” You know, a producer?

The “mystery” isn’t what we’re plunging into here. It’s a man’s spiral from grief to suspicion to rage. And let’s give our star, Sigurdsson, and director credit. The third act climax where that plays out is pretty good.

And it’s not that everything that came before it is a waste. We meet the daughter (Elma Stefania Agustsdottir) and her beau (Haraldur Stefansson), whom Ingimundur has no regard or patience for. We see that she has a toddler — thus her happiness at having her dad take care of her oldest.

Sampling a dark, morbid and no-budget Icelandic kids’ TV show where astronauts (U.S. flags on their space suits) note how they’re doomed, and that we ALL die, is kind of an off-topic treat.

And the second session with the shrink is where the picture finally gets down to business, adding drama and incidents, if not much in the line of tension.

But I didn’t fall for the surfeit of mood manipulation that opens “A White, White Day.” All that time-lapse stuff and its ilk is a nice contrast to the shock and action that takes over the third act. They’re just a very dull way of managing that.

Was “White, White Day” nominated for an Academy Award? Savvier viewers will figure that out half an hour in.

MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, nudity, profanity

Cast:Ingvar Sigurdsson, Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir, Elma Stefania Agustsdottir, Haraldur Stefansson and Þór Tulinius

Credits: Written and directed by Hlynur Palmason. A Film Movement release.

Running time: 1:49

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