Much as we like to corral messy things like grief into tidy boxes and easily-understood processes, the reality is that it’s a contrary beast that pays no heed to any one’s idea of what it should be or how it should play out.
How grief transpires for one person is not the way it will manifest for another, something that becomes palpably clear in A White, White Day (Hvítur, hvítur dagur), directed by Hlynur Palmason, where policeman Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson) is struggling to come to grips with his unwelcome new status as a widower.
His wife (Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir) has died in tragic circumstances, plunging off a steep cliff in the midst of a white out day on the roads – the sequence where she dies begins the film in total and unnervingly portentous silence – and he is left, as so many spouses and family members are to pick up the pieces.
A taciturn, almost gruff man, who really only comes alive when his granddaughter Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) is visiting or staying over, he gives every appearance of simply getting on with life, renovating his functional, remotely-situated house so it looks less like an industrial construct and more like a cosy home.
He is close enough to his daughters but when one of them, Elín (Elma Stefania Agustsdottir), tried to talk about much she misses her mother one night, Ingimundur quickly shuts her down, instructing her partner, Stefán (Haraldur Stefansson) who he barely tolerates, to take her inside.
That is the extent of his willingness to talk about the loss of his wife, a response that speaks of someone who has pushed the grief away rather than dealt with it, the renovation of the house a convenient smokescreen for his lack of emotional progress.
Quite how little progress he has made only becomes clear when a revelation partway through the first half of the film throws a whole other level of complexity into his grief which is steadfastly refusing the efforts of his work-appointed shrink Georg (Þór Hrafnsson Tulinius) to dismantle it.
To be fair to Ingimundur, you can understand his resistance to following Georg’s rather trite and ineffectual guidance.
Not only do his questions and advice sound like warm-and-fuzzy Hallmark-esque soundbites that vapourise as soon as George utters them, but they are wholly unsuited to a man like Ingimundur who treats life as an obstacle to be understood and not a Care Bear moment to be embraced.
Georg is either oblivious to Ingimundur’s lack of meaningful interaction or he simply doesn’t care; either way, his client is a man simmering on the edge, something that no one from Ingimundur’s family to his police colleagues, Bjössi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Hrafn (Arnmundur Ernst Björnsson), with whom he seems neither friendly nor unfriendly, fully seems to appreciate.
Only Salka seems to fully comprehend the anger brewing within, and possessed of a blunt willingness to tell it like it is (something Ingimundur largely takes from her), tells her grandfather he is often angry and annoyed.
Initially he brushes this off, but once the aforementioned revelation and the off-the-radar investigation it triggers really takes off, all of the defensive barriers Ingimundur has erected come crashing down, spectacularly so, in one adrenaline-fueled, reasonably-unhinged night.
The narrative at this point might seem bizarrely larger-than-life but dig deeper and you can see the grief unspooling violently and without much control.
The next day Ingimundur regrets it all, his actions at least, but that one night of confronting the truth, of facing his grief as a roiling, snarling, no longer out of sight beast, sets in dream long-delayed healing.
True to the spirit of a film which is happy in extended near-static visual sequences – in one near-five minute montage, we see Ingimundur’s home through all kinds of seasons, weathers and states of renovation and in another, a we follow a rock he finds on the road all the way down the hill to its final resting place in the sea – and comfortable with minimal dialogue (though it’s employed well and exactly as needed), Ingimundur’s healing epiphany is not a sensationally momentous moment.
Rather, while there is voluble releasing of emotions, which simultaneously unstops the valve on his pent-up grief while providing an idiosyncratic bonding experience for Salka and him, his final accommodation with his loss is quite, near-meditative and beautiful, an accurate reflection of what often happens when grief is finally allowed its true expression.
A White, White Day (Hvítur, hvítur dagur) is very much like its lead character – taciturn, slow to reveal its secrets and unwilling to express itself too loudly lest things be set in train that cannot be stopped, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t intensely, beautifully, arrestingly, emotionally evocative.
There is something deeply, movingly immersive about its ruminative narrative which takes all the time it needs to accurately reflect the passage of one person’s grief, which as we all know, is unique to Ingimundur and which would not be the same for another person in the same unenviable situation.
For all his suppressed and then released pain and sadness, what remains with you once A White, White Day (Hvítur, hvítur dagur) has run its course is the deep love he has for his granddaughter and his much-missed wife, and how the continuing closeness of one plays a crucial role, especially in the film’s energising third act, of helping him come to grief with the near-destructive absence of the other.
It is a poetically-transportive exploration of grief, both repressed and released, and how while the journey from one to the other is something unique to each person and utterly unpredictable as a result, that the journey itself must be undertaken, painful though it is, if life is to move on in any kind of meaningful fashion.