Under the wintry, aluminium-tinged skies of Hlynur Pálmason’s films, men fight against loneliness and isolation, literal and metaphorical. However premature it may be to attach a leitmotiv to the oeuvre of a 34-year-old with two features under his belt, the Reykjavik-native’s 2017 debut feature, Winter Brothers, and his sophomore, A White, White Day, offer portraits of men marooned in landscapes of belittling immensities, fumbling after an identity in austere, inhospitable places. Winter Brothers chronicled the toxic sibling rivalry between two young mine workers (Elliott Crosset Hove and Simon Sears) stranded in a remote corner of Eastern Denmark. His Cannes Critics' Week entry, A White, White Day, follows police chief Ingimundur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) as he struggles to process the loss of his wife by channeling all his energies on building a house for his daughter and beloved 8-year-old granddaughter Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir).
Much like Winter Brothers had zeroed in on the ways harsh settings shape those who inhabit them, A White, White Day offers a study of subjectivity and environment, of hidden and public selves. It is a film orphaned by almost inexpressible loneliness, a portrait of a man straightjacketed into a toxic masculinity that forbids him to make any of his mourning and fragility public.
I met Pálmason in Cannes, after watching and writing on his second feature, and we talked about A White, White Day, his transition from photography to filmmaking, and interest in vulnerable characters.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a sentence in George Saunders’ short story My Flamboyant Grandson that made me think of the piercing grandpa-grandchild portrait you conjure up in A White, White Day. It goes: “where is a child to go for unconditional love, if not to his grandfather?“
PÁLMASON: Oh, I love that quote!
NOTEBOOK: I think it underscores the sense of selflessness, the purity underpinning the love between a grandparent and a grandchild. The love your protagonist, Ingimundur, feels for his granddaughter Salka.
PÁLMASON: Yes. And I think there were two kinds of love that we were trying to dissect in A White, White Day. There’s the unconditional love you feel toward a grandchild, toward your own child—which is a simple, pure, selfless love. The love Ingimundur feels for Salka. And then there’s another kind of love, the one the man feels for his late wife—which is far more complex. It’s the kind of love that taps on the realm of desire and more animalistic impulses, if you like. And I was interested in seesawing between one and the other.
NOTEBOOK: You have a background in visual arts, and A White, White Day was inspired by one of your photography series, "A White Day."
PÁLMASON: With "A White Day," I was working on a photography series that grouped together photos I took during snow storms. They were pictures of winter—all very white, so white you could barely see a thing. But I decided to overexpose them, and in the dark room I sort of tried to capture information in each image. You have to search into the whiteness, and if you just keep it there long enough you start to see shapes popping up—the shape of a head, a sculpture, a horse... And I called it "A White Day."
NOTEBOOK: Why the repetition in the title of your film, though?
PÁLMASON: It was just meant to be a working title, at least initially. But it was so strange, it was almost as though I kept seeing repetitions everywhere. I remember someone asking me if the title came from the working title of Tarkovsky’s Mirror. And then I was told Tarkovsky’s father was a poet, and that he’d written a short story titled "A Bright, Bright Day."
NOTEBOOK: That’s quite a coincidence.
PÁLMASON: I don’t know what to call it, to be honest. Things just seemed to come about from unknown, subconscious explorations.
NOTEBOOK: I recall an interview where you said that in order to be a little bit creative you need to be 100% in control. Given your background in visual arts and how much you like being in control of various parts of your creative process, I was wondering if you ever toyed with the idea of serving as your own cinematographer.
PÁLMASON: I think the fundamental ingredient in filmmaking is collaboration. There’s something about the weight of making a film that makes it necessary for you to surround yourself with good collaborators, and family, and friends. They take part of that weight off your shoulders—you don’t suffocate, you don’t drown. And for me, there’s something about the idea of collaboration that makes it all the more pleasurable, more playful. That’s the reason why I work with a tight group of regulars. It’s almost as if we were a family.
NOTEBOOK: Maria von Hausswolff—who also served as cinematographer in your debut feature, Winter Brothers—achieves something terrific here. I’m thinking in particular of that spell-binding preamble, where we are introduced to Ingimundur’s house through a series of mounted-camera tableaux, and we cut from one season to the next, the house changing shape as the landscape around it intermittently dilates and contracts in a sea of mist. How exactly did that sequence come into being?
PÁLMASON: The house came about while I was writing and developing the project. I told my producer I needed to see the passing of time, that watching the weather change, seasons pass by, would be a crucial part of the film. I had to experience time, so to speak. So I began to shoot the prologue myself. I got a 35mm camera and carried it in the truck of my car for two years.
NOTEBOOK: You spent two years shooting that prologue?
PÁLMASON: Yes. But it was something I did while writing the script, and developing the whole project. It sort of served as a reminder, a way for me to keep thinking about the film as it was shaping up, to carry it with me wherever I’d go.
NOTEBOOK: How did you end up finding that house?
PÁLMASON: I think it was always within me, at least subconsciously. It’s actually located in the area I grew up in. So there was definitely something about the house that made me feel like I was being pulled back to my roots. Something about it that was stimulating—the location, but also just the shape of it. It was an industrial building that was later turned into an actual house. There was nothing too sentimental or romantic about it. It just felt right.
NOTEBOOK: I was very curious about something you mentioned earlier, “the house came about while I was writing.” Knowing how important music is in your films, I was wondering whether music also came to you during your projects' early stages. In A White, White Day, you worked with British composer Edmund Finnis. How did that collaboration come about?
PÁLMASON: I am always very open to hearing new music. I remember reading [Radiohead’s] Jonny Greenwood singing Finnis’ praises, so I began to look into his work. This was about four or five years ago. I remember listening to his music and being totally blown away. Something about his sound was just so familiar, almost eerily so, and yet at the same time different from anything I’d heard before. So I wrote him an email and we started corresponding. I’d send him images and videos, things that I was working on. Not necessarily films, but photos and writings I’d be doing, and he would send me his music in return. I remember receiving his tracks and trying to figure out what to use them for. But I never thought they would fit into A White, White Day, maybe because I hadn’t heard the acoustic versions [of the tracks I ended up working with]. Because once you hear the acoustic versions of Edmund’s tracks—it’s like his music comes to life. There’s an emotional resonance that takes over.
NOTEBOOK: I remember reading that you wrote A White, White Day with actor Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson in mind. His Ingimundur strikes me as a towering persona, a man brewing rage under a becalmed façade. He’s quite a departure from the actor who played the lead in Winter Brothers, Elliott Crosset Hove—a man who seemed to exude a sort of child-like naivety.
PÁLMASON: In a way, I think I’m always portraying someone I know. I guess [Ingimundur] is 10% my great-great grandfather—who was also called Ingimundur, incidentally—20% my grandfather, 15% my father, 5% me. He’s a blend. I think he just belongs to this old generation, a man of principles who keeps to himself and works very hard. He loves and provides for his family, loves his wife. He’s your quintessential Icelandic man.
NOTEBOOK: And yet his masculinity is just as fragile and broken as Elliott Crosset Hove’s character’s was in Winter Brothers. After all, Ingimundur cannot allow himself to make his mourning and grieving public.
PÁLMASON: There’s something about people at their most fragile states that makes them look so beautiful. Human vulnerability inspires so much empathy, and beauty, and sadness. It’s something worth exploring, something I cannot get enough of. Like family: there’s always going to be enough material to dig into.
NOTEBOOK: You seem to have a penchant for old VHS footage. You included some in Winter Brothers, where Elliott Crosset Hove’s character watches a shooting practice video, and you had some here too, only this time it’s this apocalyptic TV show ostensibly aimed at children but a way too grim for an audience that young.
PÁLMASON: It’s funny, I was thinking about that too recently. When I work on something and I start to dig deeper, it’s almost as though those TV fragments come up themselves. They make me laugh, make me doubt things, shake me a little. And I enjoy that feeling so much that I just keep them in the film. I think what I love the most about cinema and filmmaking is the way it blends things. It’s a mix of your past, your roots, where you come from—but it’s also how you see things today, your present mood, and future, the things you desire, your fears. It’s a blend of these three things. And I think TV just affected me so much during my lifetime that it was somewhat natural for it to feature so prominently in my work. I love when things surprise me and take me in another direction. There was an Icelandic painter who once said, “my work is like a branch—sometimes things grow to the right and I just follow them.” And I really like that. I like when things grow from the sides, do something completely unexpected, and impact the whole experience. I think it’s a beautiful surprise.
NOTEBOOK: Were you able to squeeze some time here in Cannes to watch Terrence Malick’s new film, A Hidden Life?
PÁLMASON: No. Can you believe I haven’t been able to watch one single film so far? I feel like I’m going insane.
NOTEBOOK: I asked because I heard the new feature you’re working on, much like Malick’s, deals with mankind’s relationship with the divine. If I’m not mistaken, you home in on a young priest.
PÁLMASON: That’s right.
NOTEBOOK: It sounds like something completely different from anything you’ve tackled before.
PÁLMASON: Well, I think the film is very much about ambition, about love, and the beauty around you. And it pivots on an impossible project. It’s very much a journey, and I really wanted my next film to unfold as one. After shooting the opening scene of [A White, White Day] I became obsessed with the idea of filming an impossible, crazy journey. And I’m happy I found a story that can finally let me do that.