A White, White Day
Among the many veteran’s tips you gave me on our first Cannes rendezvous was a polite reminder to fish for gems outside the red-carpeted slots of the official competition, and yesterday I heeded the call, queuing for my first screening at the Critics’ Week, Hlynur Pálmason’s A White, White Day. It was not the first time I stumbled into the Icelandic 34-year-old. Back in Locarno, in 2017, I’d been able to catch his debut feature, the visceral study of masculinity and festival darling Winter Brothers. And if the latter had heralded the Reykjavik-native as new name to reckon with, his new film only adds more evidence to the director's talent.
Having lost his wife in a car accident, police chief Ingimundur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson, of Fantastic Beasts, Justice League, and Everest fame) processes grief by channeling all his energies on fixing up a house for his daughter, Elín (Elma Stefania Agustsdottir), and granddaughter Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir). It’s a remote and pastel-colored retreat perched atop a hill a few minutes’ walk by the sea, a landscape of belittling and untamed beauty which Maria von Hausswolff’s cinematography beckons us into through a gorgeously studied series of mounted-camera tableaux, editor Julius Krebs Damsbo cutting from one season to the next, the house changing as the sprawling immensity that engulfs it intermittently dilates and contracts in a sea of mist.
A harsh and unforgiving environment finds a fitting embodiment in Sigurdsson’s imposing and laconic Ingimundur, anger and pain brewing under an ice-cold stare that only softens in the presence of his beloved 8-year-old Salka. “I just want to build a house,” the man tells a psychiatrist who seems completely out of sync with his patient’s trauma, and tosses him a half-hearted suggestions like “practice self-compassion” and “stop being so self-critical.” To no avail, of course. Ingimundur’s grief is a viscous presence that wraps the new house like glue. A White, White Day may well pivot on a loss of devastating magnitude, but what’s most tragic about it is that the accident triggers a pain and vulnerability Ingimundur cannot bring himself to make public—not even to the young Salka. In a work that thrives on its attention to small, quiet gestures, there is a whole film in the split-second Sigurdsson glances furtively around him before clutching an old shirt found inside a box of his wife’s belongings, and covers his face with it, breathing in.
Much like Winter Brothers had offered an excursion into the ways austere settings shape those who inhabit them—zeroing in on the poisonous feud between two siblings working in a remote chalk-mining factory—A White, White Day conjures up another study of environment and subjectivity, of public and private spheres, a tale of spellbinding and perturbing beauty. Cannes hasn’t even reached its midpoint yet, but as of my fourth night in this movable feast, Pálmason’s second feature stands as the most disquieting and touching experience so far—and however far we may luckily still be from the festival’s end, something tells me I shall return to Sigurdsson’s performance long after my time here will come to a close.
Watching Ingimundur find a respite from grief in Salka, moments of grandpa-granddaughter tenderness interspersing a tale of aching loneliness, I was jolted back to the multilayered family dynamics of the Official Competition entry I had seen the night before, Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You. In many ways, Loach’s latest felt like a sequel to his 2016 Palm d’Or winner, I, Daniel Blake (the English cineaste’s second Palm after his first win in 2006 for The Wind That Shakes the Barley). Set again in the same Newcastle that Dave Johns’ Daniel had roamed in a hopeless search for jobs, Loach's new film homes in on a family of four, delivery man Ricky (Kris Hitchen), home-care nurse Abby (Debbie Honeywood), their teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone), and daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor).
And though Ricky’s circumstances may first stand out as slightly better than they had been for Daniel, it only takes a few moments for Loach to spell out the full extent of the man’s misery. Plunged into endless debt after the collapse of the Northern Bank, forced to give up a house he’d bought and to rely on evanescent and short-lived jobs for years on end, Ricky sells body and soul to a delivery company that relies exclusively on independent contractors, and promises fast cash in exchange for 14-hours-a-day shifts, six days a week. “You’re a trooper,” heartless boss Maloney (Ross Brewster) welcomes Ricky, sugarcoating the lack of basic rights and the faintest trace of benefits with a bombastic invite to become “the master of your own destiny.”
Sorry We Missed You continues Loach’s excursions into poverty-stricken Britain, but conjures up a tale of Sisyphean endurance filled with more life and anger than its 2016 predecessor, largely because of the indomitable energy with which Ricky’s family struggles to survive against all odds. It is in the confines of their house that Loach’s achieves some of his most heart-wrenching material. Mired in a job market plagued with rampant privatizations, a collapsed welfare state, and ruled by the quintessentially neoliberal law of the survival of the fittest, everyday intramural rituals are the only antidote against a gig economy that shatters the very people it purports to shore up. There’s something ineffably moving in watching Liza Jane put away her parents’ dishes while the two lie exhausted and asleep in front of the TV, something wrecking in the struggle father and daughter undertake to squeeze in some time together in between his impossibly tight delivery schedule. “I wish we just didn’t have to fight so much,” she tells him over a strictly monitored two-minute work break, and it is the first in a long series of domestic heart to hearts that manage to stir up empathy without ever sensationalizing the family’s suffering, or undermining the astounding dignity with which they pull through.
Traditional tropes resurface, from Loach’s penchant for football rivalries to his interest in the genealogy—and ultimately, disintegration—of workers’ rights in the face of a pernicious gig economy. It is disheartening to notice just how much has changed since the strikes and struggles workers undertook in the heat of the Thatcher years. “You work from 7:30 in the morning till 9 at night?” one of Abby’s elderly patients asks her, after reminiscing and waxing proudly over some 1980s strikes, eyes bugging out in indignation: “what happened to the 8-hour job?”
This emphasis on the history of continuities between past and present social injustices served as the backbone of another official competition entry, Ladj Ly’s debut feature Les misérables. Overtly explicit in its allegiance to Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel—from the title to the geographical setting, located as it is in the crime-plagued Parisian banlieue of Les Bosquets, in the eastern Montfermeil district where Hugo’s Thénardiers’ Inn stood—Ly homes in on a handful of rough present-day French housing projects only to find out that very little, in the past 150 years, seems to have changed.
Police officer Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) has just joined the local street crime unit, patrolling Les Bosquets next to Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and the revoltingly corrupted and cynical Chris (Alexis Manenti, nailing a performance of unhinged brutality that makes for moments of intramural tension à la Training Day). The trio cruises around projects seesawing between beguilingly friendly interactions with Bosquets residents, and others when the sheer scope of the cops’ brutality and wanton violence comes into full, sickening view with Chris happily frisking attractive underage girls and bashing up whoever dares to cross his path. Entry point into a corrupted universe that exists over and against the rule of law the police ought to enforce, Stéphane guides us with wide-eyed angst into a labyrinth of constantly shifting power relations. Part of Les misérables’ allure is to witness the cops negotiate their scope of action and authority with trusted locals, including a man known by the sobriquet “The Mayor” (Steve Tientcheu), the hood’s market stalls manager and de facto intermediary between police and community, and Salah (Almamy Kanouté), a reformed jihadi turned kebab shop owner who parcels out teachings to local young men with a proud, breezily becalmed aura.
Tension brews over the course of Stéphane’s first day at work, Chris’ ruthless bullying poking ordinary citizens as much as the unit’s newbie, until things take a turn for the worst when a confrontation with the neighborhood kids ends in a terrible accident involving Gwada and local boy Issa (Issa Perica). It’s a pivotal juncture that shatters the delicate equilibrium between cops and the Bosquets crowd, and skyrockets what had so far unspooled as your textbook corrupted cop film into something far more visceral and magnetic. Chris’ crooked cop may well the single most clear-cut villain here (down to the delusional paean of macho authority he shouts to The Mayor and his own thugs: “I am the law!”), but it is interesting to note Ly seems to afford all characters, including the most viciously abject ones, a behind-the-scene look at the history of loneliness, grief, and alienation each of them carries. To be sure, this doesn’t amount to any redemptive cop storyline, but it is interesting to see Ly blurring (if ever so slightly) the moral compass around his broken men.
And just when a dusk-tinged montage threatens to bookend the whole drama peddling a facile they-are-all-in-the-same-boat reminder, Les misérables propels you into a fast-paced last act of staggering violence, as the neighborhood kids take their revenge on the adults around them (interestingly, both on the cops as well as “The Mayor” and his crooks), chasing Stéphane, Gwada, and Chris into the projects, in a prolonged siege that feels as suffocating as it is visually entrancing. It’s an inter-generational upheaval which brought me back to a Berlinale entry from earlier this year and that would make for an interesting double bill, Claudio Giovannesi’s Piranhas—an ethnography of Naples’ teenage gangs fighting against (and ultimately replacing) a whole underworld of grownup thugs. An atmosphere of acrid anger and desperation permeates these early festival days, as you aptly wrote in your last dispatch. These last few works I saw only corroborate the feeling.
More from me soon,