Woman at War

By Michael Sandlin.

Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson, in his sophomore directorial effort Woman at War, imagines the chaos that ensues when a middle-aged spinster’s frustrated motherly instincts compete with her radical eco-political commitment to defeat her country’s pollution-friendly patriarchy. Much like Erlingsson’s bizarre equinophilic tale Of Horses and Men (2014), Woman at War manages to honor Iceland’s long tradition of galgahumor (gallows humor) as well as its national predilection for impish inscrutability. Not really surprising for a tiny island nation that believes in elves and elects anarcho-surrealists to high government posts.

Erlingsson wastes nary a frame on preliminary expository detail: the first scene plunges the viewer straight into protagonist Halla’s determined acts of sticking it to the Man. We see her alone in the bleak rural countryside armed with a bow and arrow attempting to sabotage the electrical grid that keeps the local industrialists in business. We get no overt clues as to exactly what’s driving this fifty-ish weekend warrior to single-handedly take on Iceland’s industrial complex – other than her fierce convictions about the local “heavy industry” and its “crimes against us.” We also eventually learn about some sort of potentially environmentally unfriendly pact happening between local industry bigwigs and the Chinese government.

While dodging the authorities – who attempt to thwart her ambitions via helicopter, drone, and bloodhound throughout the film – Halla befriends a local farmer who assists her in evading capture more than once. He offers help not necessarily because he sympathizes with her cause (or even completely understands it) – but because he suspects she may be a blood relation. With the help of this so-called “alleged cousin” Halla manages to give the police the slip for much of the movie, keeping alive her dream of frustrating local industry’s dastardly plans. Of course, it helps that the Icelandic cops seem determined to blame these incidences of righteous vandalization on an expletive-spewing Spanish traveler who’s always in the wrong place at the wrong time. But on one unfortunate occasion Halla slices the palm of her hand open while attempting to snip a cable. This nasty injury leaves behind damning evidence that will soon make her fugitive existence impossible to sustain.

Elingsson’s film could have easily been modeled on the orthodox realism of female-driven activist classics like Norma Rae, Silkwood, or Erin Brockovich, but Woman at War of course wears its characteristic Icelandic oddness on its sleeve. Most of the movie’s quirks, however, serve as little more than visual non sequitur; the most obvious of these random oddities is the film’s musical score. As it happens, the musical accompaniment to the action on film is provided by an Edwardian-looking hipster oompah band whose musical performance cheekily blurs the boundaries between diegetic and non-diegetic musical complement. They trail Halla around the entire movie, sometimes even making gestural commentary on the action. Yet their presence is never acknowledged by onscreen characters who are officially locked into the events of the narrative. Somehow the band’s functioning in this way – sometimes performing onscreen, sometimes off—always falls just shy of trivializing Hella’s monomaniacal plight.

But there are plenty of ingeniously conceived scenes where the film manages to stake out a reasonable middle ground between oblique suggestion and explicit revelation—and always with a hint of good old galgahumor. It’s easy to at first assume that Halla’s one-woman war on Iceland’s industrial complex is nothing more than a way to fill the spiritual void that missing out on being a mom might have left in her life. But the film finds interesting ways to problematize such assumptions. When Halla gets word from abroad that she’s been approved to adopt a six-year-old Ukrainian war orphan, it looks as though she’ll have to set aside her revolutionary dreams to start a new life as a responsible single foster parent. Or will she?

In Woman at War, story craft and empathetic characterization end up winning out over stylistic filigree. There’s intrepid use made of the coincidence of Halla having an exact twin sister, Asa, who’s an Ashram instructor about to set off for India to cloister herself at a yogini retreat. Asa performs a surprising quick-change act of self-sacrifice – one that allows Halla the incognito existence she needs to have a shot at legitimate motherhood. It’s a clever if slightly far-fetched twist that allows for the film’s humanistic quality to fully emerge—a welcome trait that Woman at War‘s persistently absurdist tack can’t quite ironize into irrelevance. But the final bizarre image we’re left with is classic galgahumor, with its environmental-apocalypse overtones too obvious to ignore. It begs the question: now that Halla finally has fulfilled her motherly ambitions, will her daughter get to grow up in a world that’s still ecologically fit for humans?

Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.

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