MPI // 2008 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 26th, 2009
Is the road to happiness paved with blissful ignorance?
"If you're truly happy for more than ten minutes in your entire life, then you must be an idiot."
Jon (Hilmer Snaer Guonason) is a college professor who is about to be married to Thora (Laufey Eliasdotter), one of his former students. Alas, Jon isn't as happy as he should be. He is wracked with guilt over his failed first marriage, worried about the massive financial debt that he owes Thora's parents, and generally uncertain about the direction his life is taking. There's only one day left before he finally takes the plunge. In the midst of a boozy haze of chaos, arguments, laughter and intense memories, will Jon discover whether or not marrying Thora is the right thing to do?
White Night Wedding is described by one critic on the DVD packaging as a, "darker version of Woody Allen and Alexander Payne." The comparison is superficial at best. Like Payne and Allen, director Baltasar Kormakur (one of Iceland's most acclaimed filmmakers) is comfortable attempting to merge character-driven comedy and drama, but this film is simply not as witty, intelligent or savage as the better works of the two American directors. It's loosely based on Anton Chekov's tragicomedy, Ivanov, a fact White Night Wedding rather blatantly acknowledges by inserting discussions of that play at the beginning and end of the film.
Jon stands in front of class offering his own analysis of Ivanov, guiding his students into a discussion of whether or not it is right to do anything for the sake of love. Is it always wrong to betray a loved one, or is it permissible to betray your partner for the sake of attaining what you perceive to be "true love"? That question is a particularly agonizing one for Jon. We see flashbacks from his past, and see that his marriage to the peculiar Anna (Margret Vilhjlamsdottir) was certainly a very unhappy one. Their relationship is marked by a potent mixture of spite, sadness and desperation. Whatever good qualities it once had, they are no longer there. Jon has grown tired of Anna, causing Anna to grow angry and bitter towards Jon. To make matters even worse, Anna seems to be succumbing to a devastating combination of physical and mental illness.
Jon finds comfort in the arms of sweet Thora, who is one of those people who think they are attracted to someone when they actually just pity them. She has a burning to desire to fix Jon's life, and softly throws herself at him in an attempt to make things better. Jon responds to her advances, and convinces himself for a while that he has truly found his soul mate. There are some interesting moments in the film as Jon's mind wanders through his tortured past and uncertain present, particularly a couple of sexually-charged sequences that are far more likely to cause discomfort rather than arousal. This is the sort of material that Bergman might have turned into cinematic gold, but Kormakur insists on shoving this drama within the confines of an agonizingly stereotypical romantic comedy.
There are scenes leading up to the wedding that play like something from a Dennis Dugan film. For instance, there is a scene in which Thora's father gives Jon a large stack of money. He says that he has been saving the money for some time, and that Jon should give it to Thora's mother and tell her that the debt he owes her is repaid. Jon agrees, sits down at a picnic table outside, sets the money on the table, and falls asleep. The next morning, the money has been swept away by the wind, and the stereotypically stern priest who will be conducting the wedding is gleefully romping through the fields chasing the bills (which are obviously a gift from God). That's only one of oh-so-many scenes that rely on the bewildering stupidity of characters to set up wheezy punch lines. There are plenty of silly pratfalls involving Jon's redneck best man, Thora's incessant nag of a mother and the alcoholic organ player. These moments do not feel like charming slices of life, but rather contrived bits of slapstick borrowed from sub-par Hollywood comedies.
Everything builds up to a spectacularly misguided conclusion, which is so desperate to hammer the viewer with symbolism that it completely forgets about attempting to make a lick of sense on a surface level. I don't technically have a problem with replacing reality for symbolism, but I feel that one must abide by the ground rules they set up. This film sets out to be a relevant modern-day retelling of Ivanov but in the end it seems to be stuck with either being relevant or being a modern-day retelling of Ivanov. It chooses the latter, and the viewer suffers as a result.
The transfer is merely adequate, capturing a decent level of detail but failing to maintain much depth and shading during the darker scenes. Facial detail also seems a bit off at times, though the pleasant island scenery certainly looks impressive. Audio is fine, though some of the musical selections occasionally threaten to overwhelm the dialogue (less a problem for English-speaking viewers, since they'll be reading subtitles anyway). The only extra on the disc is a theatrical trailer.
Despite a handful of compelling scenes and a few good ideas, White Night Wedding is ultimately an ambitious failure.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Icelandic)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated