One of the most exciting annual film programs in New York City is New Directors/New Films. Hosted by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New Directors/New Films (now in its 47th year) is a showcase for up-and-coming talents. Films like Ana Urushadze’s Scary Mother (2017), Ricky D’Ambrose’s Notes on an Appearance (2018), and Hlynur Pálmason’s Winter Brothers (2017) inject fresh blood into the sometimes moribund state of cinema. The latter film in particular offers viewers a sui generis if disjointed vision.
The story of Winter Brothers is basic. Two brothers, the younger Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove) and the older Johan (Simon Sears), work at a limestone mine in a remote, chilly setting in Denmark. Emil is playful and a bit of a hellion. He performs magic for his captivated coworkers; he concocts and sells a homemade brew from chemicals pinched at the mine; and he practices the proper stances of holding a rifle from a VHS that he watches with rapt attention. Johan tries to control the volatile moods and behaviors of his little brother, but all attempts to rein him in evaporate, changing to animosity as they both vie for the same young woman (Victoria Carmen Sonne).
Pálmason deliberately keeps the narrative of Winter Brothers simple. It’s more of a foundation to build his thick textures, sounds, and moods. And he’s working with a fine crew to generate this insular, sensorial world: Maria von Hausswolff shot the film in 16mm with desaturated blues and whites; Lars Halvorsen crafted the varied and pronounced sound design; and Toke Brorson Odin provided an ambient and lightly synth score. These formal and aesthetic considerations interest Pálmason more than telling a story. Or better yet, these stylistic choices are the story. The pre-title sequence, for instance, is a nearly wordless, protracted moment set in the dark, dank mine. The light from the workers’ hard hats offers patches of visibility of wet, dust-encrusted faces. Soon the miners emerge from the darkness, trance-like and in single file, as they toss their hard hats mechanically in a heap. And yet the whole film consists of such isolated scenes. Winter Brothers is a film of parts — clashing and contrasting with each other — rather than a film that’s a cohesive whole. This is perhaps partly due to Palmáson’s background with the short film format. Since he constructs the film piecemeal, Winter Brothers has a stuttering, halting, hiccupping rhythm.
More often than not Pálmason creates scenes that have some sort of surprising reveal or capper: a slap to the face; a bottle of clear liquid instantly turning dark due to a chemical reaction or by magic; a mouth pried open as it’s forced to drink the noxious hooch. Attempting to generate excitement with each one, Pálmason strings together scenes that do not amount to a coherent work.
Nevertheless, Pálmason is a filmmaker to watch given his aesthetic choices: minimalizing the content of on-screen space so that it becomes altogether abstract; the use of off-screen to on-screen movement for surprise; and drawing the viewers’ attention with frames-within-frames in particular shots. Pálmason seems to work intuitively, and what he creates with Winter Brothers is a shaggy film that alternates between being invigorating and tedious. With a little more infrastructure to manage his “go with the flow” filmmaking approach, Pálmason perhaps has a great film in him yet.
Hlynur Pálmason’s Winter Brothers is screening at the New Directors/New Films festival at the Museum of Modern Art’s Walter Reade Theater (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on Thursday, March 29 and Saturday, March 31.