Savina Petkova on Joe Penna’s ‘Artic’ (2018)
A white, inverted cosmology: even a plane ruin seems as creation ex nihilo when framed by the arctic frost background. Shot in the icy debris of Iceland, former YouTube vlogger Joe Penna’s first feature film is a staggering survival story which employs its narrative minimalism to reach boiling point temperatures of emotional intensity. While the audience felt chilly in a room for what felt like weeks in screen time, a mere 97 minutes compose the young Icelandic director’s bold breathtaking debut. The film starts off with a rough introduction to the main (and it seems only) character — Overgård (Mads Mikkelsen). Denying nearly all dialogue, the script composes of just a few direct speech lines, while most of the talking is muttered to oneself, or whispered under one’s breath. This is a slow cinema of muffled screams.
Overgård is represented by a series of well-accustomed actions — waking up, incising SOS in snow, wiring up a battery, visiting a grave memorial, going to sleep — all timed to his wristwatch alarm. We catch up on his daily routine like a sequence of rituals. All performed with indispensable concentration and composure, his actions acquire mythological significance since they mark his presence in this hostile landscape. Rituals which strip down his civilised side, while reasserting it. Positioned as the only man in sight, he is simultaneously the first and the last man on Earth, and his existence is marked only by the routine of his actions. A mythical hero in quiet solitude.
All punctures in the emotionally contained narrative are marked by the presence of another, which transforms the space from flat and desolate, to a thriller mine-field. First, Overgård encounters a bear that has eaten his fish supply. The white blanket of snow he cultivated and made a home of turns into a terrifying panopticon — the arctic desert allows no hiding place, only exposure. Since time is non-existent in the dead-silent solitude, only the pilot’s watch serves as an indication of days passing. One exceptionally stormy day, Overgård’s luck seems to smile upon him. This time the presence of another causes an irreversible metamorphosis of Overgård’s survival life — a woman on deathbed after her helicopter crashed.
The stakes are raised as an important emphasis is put on the essence of being alive, rather than merely surviving. Life as a communal deed, as social cohesion, as human warmth, all of this life has been amputated of the pilot’s being for the sake of self-preservation. We see Overgård taking the risk of an impossible journey through the severe desert, with little provisions and the weight of the comatose woman. Building up an iconic vision of a man who has the purpose and drives to overcome nature’s cunning power, Arctic masterfully plays both the white and black keys of this human nature piano.
A quintessential survival film, Penna’s debut posits numerous obstacles to its protagonist, ruthlessly testing him and bringing the audience the exquisitely painful pleasure of the sight of powerless, devastated Mikkelsen, who manages to rise yet again. Essentially close to the emotions provoked by The Revenant (2015), the thrill of The Grey (2011), and the notion of human closeness that conquers nature in The Mountain Between Us (2017), Arctic remains composed while boiling below the surface.
Deliberately denying all previous knowledge of Overgård’s past (the lack of flashbacks is a salubrious relief), the emotional stability of the film rests on the character’s presence in his passive environment, which also happens to be his antagonist. Any time we sympathise with the conqueror of nature, the ice hell strikes back, undermining any superiority that man may possess. On the other hand, the passivity of the arctic landscape is conveyed by long static shots or wide lens cameras with slow movements — as time stands still, the landscape stands still. The Arctic abolishes time and space as we know them. The sublime beauty of the background is undeniable and the cinematography remains tender to the threat of nature. Such piety is significantly Nordic, and it comes as no surprise that the film can be somewhat of an anthem to the strength of Scandinavian men.
Namely, men. One cannot help but wonder why introduce a female character only to confine her to a voiceless, indistinguishably foreign one? If a nameless woman is meant to be no more than a catalyst, what is the excuse for reducing her to a narrative instrument? Pointing beyond feminist demands, the following question is pertinent: what is gained by the presence of a character only diminished to her physical presence as a body dragged across the Arctic? Whereas she has got a past — a family photograph which Overgård carefully positions next to her head at numerous occasions — a past that he himself is denied. Yet, she is not given speech, which limits her to a subject of his asserted dominance; an extreme case of the damsel in distress to actualise his heroic potential. Even though Mikkelson’s acting is impeccable, solid, and heart wrenching, we secretly wish to have him swapped for the unfairly silent woman. In other words: come for Mads, but ask about feminism.
Showing in cinemas 3 January 2019