(The fabulous Oak Cliff Film Festival ran June 14-17. We have a smattering of reviews from one of our favorite fests so, stay tuned…)
Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove) is an isolated fellow. He lives and works in a remote, limestone mining town in eastern Denmark where hyper-masculinity is rampant and women are all but nonexistent. For all intents and purposes, the mine is the only real employer in this town, which pits Emil against a menagerie of much more hardened miners. As if that is not enough to make a man feel alone, Emil is also a bit…well…strange. Maybe the bootleg alcoholic concoctions he conjures up at home have simplified his mind, or maybe he was born this way? Either way, he just does not fit in there.
Icelandic filmmaker Hlynur Palmason establishes a foreboding atmosphere in which the extreme cold is accentuated by the snow and limestone dust that permeate Emil’s skin (as well as his soul). It is as if the environment is perpetually coating him with a layer of grime that he just cannot shake; the proverbial cross that Emil must always bear.
For the most part, Emil is presented as a likable character, despite his quirky idiosyncrasies. The one exception is his incredibly creepy obsession with Anna (Victoria Carmen Sonne). One could chalk (mind the pun!) this up to desperation, since Anna is one of the few women left in this stark mining town. But that is absolutely no excuse for Emil – or his brother – to treat her purely as a sexual object. Palmason is to blame for this, since Anna is given no opportunities to develop as a character. Palmason’s treatment of Anna is the film’s only true downfall (Winter Brothers would fail the Bechdel test miserably) – it’s also worth noting that Palmson’s non-traditional narrative approach will definitely obscure it from mainstream audiences (although that’s not a criticism in my opinion).
Palmason succeeds in transcending us into Emil’s mindset as Winter Brothers schizophrenically alternates between fantasy and the gritty brutality of neo-realism. A steady stream of hardships – including a harsh confrontation with his brother, Johan (Simon Sears) – leads to Emil’s increasing feelings of dread, bitterness and confusion. It really comes as no surprise (especially for anyone in the United States) that Emil turns to the safety of a rifle and military training videos to presumably ease his anxieties. One can only assume that Emil strives to gain Anna’s attention with his heightened machismo (to paraphrase Gang of Four, women love a man in a uniform and they love to see you shoot).
Winter Brothers plays like a mashup of Aki Kaurismaki and Yorgos Lanthimos, with some Béla Tarr thrown in for good measure. The tones and moods of the film are heavily reliant upon Maria von Hausswolff’s gorgeous cinematography, which quite beautifully reveals the effortless shifts from Emil’s romantic (albeit demented) fascinations to the grim reality of workers suffering the harsh mining conditions. But, first and foremost, von Hausswolff captures the inhospitable world in which Emir finds himself helplessly trapped like a character in an Albert Camus story. Can Emir do anything to escape this world?
– Don Simpson (@thatdonsimpson)