I have some reviews from the past month to fill in before this one but I want to jump ahead and write this one while it’s fresh in my mind the very day I watched it. This is another movie that has been on my “to watch” list far too long. The initial reason was that I only had a dull VHS copy of the movie with no subtitles on it, and I decided to wait either until I found time to learn a little Swedish (something I still want and plan to do for a variety of other reasons) or some subtitles showed up on the net. Then, I waited so long that I decided perhaps I should read the book and then watch the movie with no subtitles, which is what I eventually did. I read the (translated) book over the past few weeks, and it instantly became one of my alltime faves. The simplicity of language and degree to which I related to the emotions conveyed, the likes of which are rarely, if ever, conveyed, just blew me away. I had a hard time thinking how it could make a movie, let alone one that clocks in at a mere 75 minutes.
By the time I got to watching the movie, then, I had the book as a background and I had also acquired subtitles, so I was set. The irony is – and this serves as encouragement to anybody reading this and having the same hesitations about watching – the smattering of dialogue in this movie is really nothing to worry about, should you either have no subtitles, or even if you have them and just don’t like reading them. This is a visual interpretation all the way, and frankly, it’s the only way you could even hope to attack the complexity of the inner world of these characters in the novel: by practically ignoring it, and letting the viewer fill in the gaps, which is as pure as cinema gets if you ask me.
The story is almost embarrassingly simple and does nothing towards selling you the experience of either reading or watching (but if you need this kind of movie “selling” to you then you’re frankly on the wrong site, lol): two young girls, Siss and Unn, meet and immediately connect on a level they can neither understand nor communicate. Unn is new to Siss’ school and distant from the other kids. Siss goes to Unn’s house and they share an intimate moment in Unn’s bedroom, after which Unn says she has a secret she wants to tell Siss. Siss gets uncomfortable and leaves, and the next day, Unn mysteriously disappears. I won’t go further than that, except to say that what follows not only continues a much-needed exploration of unspoken feelings but also the grief process, growing up, and moving on (I feel like I should at least acknowledge the lesbian aspect of the story but I honestly did not even think of this while reading the book, reading the girls’ attraction to each other on a much deeper spiritual level, with all that follows stemming merely from Unn’s secret that Siss, and us, never learn*… the book is just that minimal, not to mention so averse to such easy descriptors as the ‘L’ word…).
I would recommend the book much more enthusiastically than the movie because there is just so much more there, including a heartwrenching “second ending” which is understandably excised here (I was overjoyed, if that’s the right word, by the portrayal of the ice palace’s collapse, however). But considering this was made in the late 80s for what can’t have been an enormous budget, I was seriously impressed by how well the film simply visualises the book (this does, by the way, entail some underage nudity, for those who need to know these things). I really didn’t expect the scenes of the ice palace itself to be so overpoweringly visceral. I almost didn’t expect to see the ice palace at all, assuming a film of such paltry length would somehow take the story on a more metaphorical and talky level. This is a film that takes a minimal novel and strips it down even further. It’s all about the images, the faces, and a haunting (if a little synthy) score. It actually interests me how a person who hadn’t read the novel first would take it. It didn’t blow me away nearly as much as the book, which left me teary-eyed and speechless, but I really can’t imagine a better way it could have been filmed.
* This secret, now I’ve had time to process both book and movie, seems simply to be that Unn is afraid she won’t go to heaven, and it follows perhaps that this is because of the attitude towards homosexuality at the time the story is set, in the 30s – but again, the way it read to me in the book, it seemed to me that Unn was afraid of not going to heaven, but equally afraid of elaborating on why, which is what unsettles Siss, who leaves before such a thing can ever happen…