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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (14/4/2023)

(Reviews of Godland; and Loving Highsmith)


Having made an award-winning start to his directorial career with Winter Brothers (2017) and A White, White Day (2019), Icelander Hlynur Pálmason excels himself with Godland, a Bressonian treatise on faith and folly that was purportedly inspired by a set of seven wet collodion photographs taken by a 19th-century Danish priest which were the first to document the island's south-eastern coast. Derived its title from a poem by Matthías Jochumsson (who also wrote the Icelandic national anthem), Volaða Land (also given in Danish as Vanskabte Land) translates as `Wretched Land' and encapsulates the film's simmering dualistic tensions.

Dispatched by the Church of Denmark to build a chapel in a remote corner of Iceland, Lutheran priest Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) has misgivings about his mission. Moreover, he ignores the advice of his superior to blend in with the locals and struggles to pick up much of the language from his translator (Hilmar Guðjónsson) during a choppy voyage north.

On landing, Lucas is dismayed to discover that none of the welcoming party speaks Danish and he makes a poor impression on his guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson), who can't understand why he has brought so many books, let alone a large wooden cross. His poor horsemanship also irritates Ragnar, who has no time for Danes, but speaks more of the language than he lets on.

When they make camp, Ragnar does nothing to help Lucas pitch his tent and expresses bafflement when he prefers to treat a glass plate with egg white and chemicals while he lays a net to catch some fish for breakfast. Similarly, while Lucas and the translator trek off to photograph a waterfall and its surrounding landscape, Ragnar opts to remain by the fire, where he regales his companions with a cautionary tale about a cuckold who is troubled by the fact that female eels make the same noise during coitus as his wife.

Frustrated by the harsh conditions and unsettled by the midnight sun, Lucas loses patience with Ragnar and ignores his warning about fording a raging river. He is furious with himself, therefore, when the translator falls from his horse and drowns, while the crucifix is borne away on the torrent. As they ride on, the water washes away the shallow grave and Lucas prays to God to deliver him from his ordeal.

Unable to communicate with Ragnar and the bearers, Lucas sullenly keeps to himself. Thus, when he tumbles down an incline, they elect to leave him behind, having pulled him up and tucked him into a makeshift bed. Miraculously, after a 360° shot showing how exposed and endangered he is, Lucas reaches his destination, where he is nursed back to health by Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne) and Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir), the daughters of Carl (Jacob Lohmann), a Danish settler who lives in a comfortable house and can't understand why Lucas went overland when he could have sailed to the nearby port.

Work begins on the church, but Lucas remains sombre. He tries to take Ida's picture atop a horse, but she keeps shifting position and irritates him when she asks if he is going to marry Anna. Ragnar also poses awkward questions when he announces he would like to become a man of God. However, Ida's translations fail to make the conversation any easier, as Ragnar reveals that he thought he would grow up to be the King of Denmark because his mother had assured him that he was just an ordinary man like himself.

A young couple get married (Birta Gunnarsdóttir and Ísar Svan Gautason) and Carl smiles when Lucas refuses to conduct a ceremony in the half-built church. A 360° pan shows the guests engage in various activities, as accordionists play a tune. According to custom, the menfolk wrestle and Carl invites Lucas to fight. Much to his surprise, the priest wins and has to take on Ragner in a muscular struggle that betrays their antipathy.

Now living in the barn, Lucas spends his time with Ida and Anna, growing increasingly fond of the latter. She gently chides him when his horse disappears and teases him when he has trouble with Ida's mount. After a time-lapse shot of the horse's decomposing cadaver, Lucas covers Anna's face in white make-up to get a better portrait. She joins him in the red-lit canvas developing tent and smiles when he says how young and beautiful she looks. As the image appears, Anna explains how she doesn't want to grow old on Iceland and will return to the Danish home she last saw when she was six.

As he has run out of silver, Lucas is unable to take a picture of Ragnar. But he bellows at him when the older man insists and assures him that he wouldn't want an image of his ugly mug. Following a montage of the compositions that Lucas has captured, Ragnar reveals that he can speak Danish, but loathes it. He also admits to being afraid of God and reels off a list of sins that culminates in the killing of Lucas's horse.

The priest throws himself on the guide and they fight in the rock pools, as the waves crash around them. After a lengthy tussle, Lucas dashes Ragnar head on the black rocks and returns home. Anna is waiting for him and he lays his head on her shoulder in despair. She kisses him and leads him to the barn. Carl senses something is developing between the pair and warns his daughter against getting involved with a man who can only bring trouble.

Eventually, the church is completed and Ida plays the organ as the villagers arrive. Lucas closes the doors and starts to pray before the altar. However, he is distracted by a baby crying and Ragnar's dog barking outside. When he storms out to shoo it away, he slips in the mud and vanishes, leaving the congregation in the pews. Bemused and angry, Carl saddles his horse to find Lucas.

He catches up with him as dusk falls and forces him to dismount from Ida's horse. Quietly, Carl explains that he has come to realise that our lives are short and so insignificant that they leave little behind. Pulling a knife, he stabs the priest, telling him that people will simply think he died in a fall. As the seasons past, a montage shows the forbidding beauty of the coast and the mountains. Ida goes for a ride and comes across the horse's corpse. She kneels beside it and offers the consolation that it will soon become one with the soil and nourish grass and flowers. Shedding a tear, she assures the beast that this is a noble fate and the film ends with a hymn of praise to Denmark.

Gruelling and gripping in equal measure, this may be photographed in the antiquated Academy ratio with rounded corners to the frames, but it has plenty to say about the modern world. The seething nationalism that is tugging at European unity comes under as much scrutiny as the culture-clashing legacy of the colonial past, while the ongoing crisis of masculinity is reflected in Lucas's fall from grace. The role of religion in daily life and the changing status of women are also explored. But the film never feels issue-heavy or crammed, as Pálmason uses the munificent running time and measured rhythms to allow ideas to emerge and moil at their own pace with a disarming blend of austerity and wit.

Danish editor Julius Krebs Damsbo must share the credit, as should Swedish cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff, whose use of light and colour reinforces the artistry of Pálmason's compositions and the audacity of some of his camera moves. Frosti Friðriksson's production design is also intriguing, as his contrasts between the implacability of the landscape with the cosiness of Carl's domicile remind us that we don't see the dwellings of the villagers who materialise for the wedding and the first service at the church they have clubbed together to build. This sense of elsewhereness is emphasised by Alex Zhang Hungtai's ruggedly lowering score.

Having previously teamed with Ingvar Sigurðsson on Pálmason's 2014 short, The Painter, Elliott Crosset Hove plays Lucas as a sincere and devout idealist with a genuine curiosity about the terrain and its people whose faith and sense of self are tested, as he ventures further into the heart of darkness that will derange and destroy him. Increasingly gaunt and withdrawn, he becomes stubbornly rigid and arrogant in his battle of wits with Sigurðsson's gnarled Ragnar, who always has the upper hand, as he knows what Lucas is saying while he is too haughty to acquire even a smattering of Icelandic.

Such is Lucas's colonialist contempt for a chaotic community that refuses to bend to his will that he only speaks to sisters Anna and Ida, who are ably played by Vic Carmen Sonne and the director's daughter, Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir. He is suspicious and scared of Carl, who seems to have gone native during his prolonged stay. But the disapproving Jacob Lohmann remains in the background before he decides to end the charade and leave the audience to wonder whether anyone from the mainland will ever learn about Lucas's demise, let alone investigate and avenge it.


Patricia Highsmith was a remarkable writer. Graham Greene, who knew about these things, called her `the poet of apprehension'. Away from her desk, however, Highsmith found things more difficult. Drawing on the archive material that formed the basis of Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks 1941-1995, Swiss documentarist Eva Vitija examines the reasons for the novelist's complicated private life in what she calls a `love-biography'.

Yet, while Loving Highsmith provides useful insights into the Texan's sexual struggles and literary inspirations, it's frustratingly silent on her racism and the virulent anti-semitism that prompted countless pseudonymous letters to newspapers in Europe and America about the Holocaust and Israel.

Although a fan of Highsmith's prose, Vitija fell in love with her on reading her diaries. Extracts are read by Gwendoline Christie to complement the clips from interviews and small-screen profiles that reveal Highsmith to be combatively evasive when reflecting upon her career. We also see scenes from four of the many film adaptations of Highsmith's 22 novels: Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951); Wim Wenders's The American Friend (1977); Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley (1999); and Todd Haynes's Carol (2015).

Even more intriguing, however, are the contributions by Highsmith's former lovers. Fellow author Marijane Meaker met her in L's, a lesbian bar in Greenwich Village. Highsmith disliked being regarded as a crime writer, even though her stories were based on dark ideas and often contained violence and murder. Yet, when she wrote The Price of Salt - the same-sex romance that was unusual for the 1950s in having a happy ending - she published it under the name Claire Morgan.

It had been inspired by a chance meeting with an elegant customer when Highsmith was working on the doll counter in Bloomingdale's. She never saw the woman again, but scribbled the plotline into her notebook, with added detail from her own diaries. The experience had proved liberating, but Meaker suggests that Highsmith didn't write another lesbian story because of her disapproving mother.

Mary Coates had divorced artist Jay Plangman nine days before Patricia was born and later confided that she had contemplated drinking turpentine to terminate the pregnancy. Cousins Courtney, Judy, and Dan Coates reflect on her relatively happy six-year stay in Fort Worth with her grandmother and joke that she was never as famous as her `brother', Dan, who became a celebrated rodeo announcer. In 1927, however, Mary took Patricia to New York to live with her new husband, Stanley Highsmith.

Despite Meaker declaring Mary `a bitch', Patricia felt married to her mother and dedicated two books to her. When Mary suspected her daughter was more interested in girls than boys, however, she sent her on dinner dates with young men and Highsmith later compared kissing them to `falling into a bucket of oysters'. She felt intercourse with men was like `steel wool in the face', yet consulted an analyst to help her reconcile herself to matrimony.

Ultimately, she fled to Europe, where she enjoyed wandering and meeting new people. She claimed she was `the forever-seeking' and it was during a stay in Positano in 1952 that she saw the man on a beach on whom she modelled her most famous creation, Tom Ripley. Feeling liberated, she took several lovers, including Millie Alford, the first female director of American Airlines. This comes as news to the cousins, although they were aware of Patricia's many conquests. What they knew about her dalliances with men, as she tried to normalise herself, is not divulged, however.

During her appearance on Desert Island Discs, Roy Plomley asked Highsmith about the scarcity of independent women in her books and she admits she tends to think of them in relation to their menfolk. Meaker claims stories with male protagonists sell better, as women and men want to read about them. Hence the `Ripliad', as Highsmith herself was both fascinated and appalled by his fatal charm and enjoyed coaxing readers into empathising with such a rogue.

Meaker was amazed that such a brilliant writer needed to spike her morning orange juice with gin. Together with their cats, they had shared a home in rural Pennsylvania between 1959-61, with the neighbours believing they were two single women pooling their meagre resources until they were caught kissing by some kids while making breakfast. Content to ride out the gossip, the pair parted over a combination of Highsmith's drinking and Meaker being caught readying her diaries.

Dismayed by Mary's reaction to The Price of Salt, Highsmith legally uncoupled herself and abandoned a second `girls' book', which had been based on her own experiences. In order to put more distance, Highsmith went to London, where she had an affair with a married woman known only by the name Caroline (although other sources use the surname Besterman). Following an idyllic trip to Paris, Highsmith bought a cottage in a Suffolk village to be near Caroline. But she couldn't cope with being the other woman and broke off the relationship and vowed never to live with anyone again.

She found a farmhouse in Montcourt and enjoyed the solitude. Writing became a substitute for the life she could not live, although it brough unwelcome intrusions, as she found interviews excruciating. While chairing the jury at the Berlin Film Festival, she met Tabea Blumenschein, a German performer and costume designer who worked with Ulrike Ottinger and cross-dressed with David Bowie in Berlin. Although she inspired The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), their brief relationship faltered and Highsmith was so crushed that she struggled to write for the first time in her life. Salvation came in the form of teacher and translator Monique Buffet, to whom the book was dedicated. However, she had just met the woman who is still her partner today and their liaison ended on the best of terms.

A tax issue drove Highsmith to Switzerland, where she commissioned a house in Ticino. Looking back through old notebooks and diaries, she found much to regret and channelled her resentment into racist pronouncements that Vitija lays at the door of her bigoted Texan grandfather. While working on Ripley Under Water (1991), she reissued her lesbian novel under her own name and the new title, Carol. Her final work, Small g: a Summer Idyll (1995) was another gay story that ended on a note of optimism. And the film ends with a poignant diary entry about the trees that Highsmith had come to basking in the sun on the day she would die.

Tidily edited by Rebecca Trösch and accompanied by a twangy guitar score by Noël Akchoté, this is a discreetly adoring documentary that gives Highsmith the benefit of every doubt. Clearly, her treatment at the hands of her mother was damagingly distressing and Vitija capably shows how it impacted on her later relationships. But she neglects the pain that Highsmith inflicted on those she discarded and tones down the obsessive manner in which she sometimes pursued potential partners.

As the focus is primarily on Highsmith's emotional life, it's understandable that the literary achievement she felt made her respectable is consigned to the margins. But it might have been interesting to hear an analysis of the connection between the two from someone who was not a relative or an old flame. A respected writer in her own right, Meaker offers the most perceptive insights and a little more candid sharing on her part would have been more revealing than Buffet and Blumenschein's circumspect reminiscences, with even the latter's recollection of Highsmith's fixation with snails being tactfully couched.

Vitija should be commended, however, for her archive discoveries, which range from radio and television interviews to home movies and carefully posed snapshots taken of Highsmith by her doting lovers. These echo the images that her film-maker, Joschy Schneidegger, had taken of her as a child and which Vitija had confronted and reclaimed in her notable debut, My Life As a Film: How My Father Tried to Capture Happiness (2015). The clips from the Highsmith adaptations are less compelling or apposite, although it's fascinating to compare Dennis Hopper and Matt Damon's readings of Ripley. It would have been too much to ask for Vitija to disclose Caroline's identity, but her decision to downplay Highsmith's prejudices takes naive loyalty to the point of disingenuity.

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