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CANNES 2024 Un Certain Regard

Review: When the Light Breaks

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- CANNES 2024: A group of Reykjavík art-school pals deal with a sudden tragedy in Rúnar Rúnarsson’s fourth feature

Review: When the Light Breaks
Katla Njálsdóttir and Elín Hall in When the Light Breaks

There has been a death in the family, and not solely the immediate one. Those left behind in this instance are the deceased’s close collegiate social circle, and When the Light Breaks [+see also:
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– directed by Icelandic filmmaker Rúnar Rúnarsson and opening Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section – gains perspective as a grief study by foregrounding the best friends. But how can this sorrow impact us if we, the audience, feel more like gatecrashers at a wake?

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The proximity of death seems everywhere in contemporary Icelandic cinema. Here, Rúnarsson places it in a more urban context than its filmmakers typically showcase in the country, and also deigns to observe its impact on young people – those who assumed they wouldn’t have to contend with real personal loss for years. Yet this is a modest, simple film, only just touching 80 minutes. It registers with the impact of a newspaper headline announcing a tragedy, before the reader’s eyes quickly dart away.

The opening, magic hour-shot scenes introduce us to Una (Elín Hall), a studio arts student who identifies as pansexual, conducting a passionate affair with Diddi (Baldur Einarsson), with whom she plays in a band. The following morning, Diddi needs to cautiously skip home – can he borrow her flatmate Gunni’s (Mikael Kaaber) car? In a cavernous tunnel on his route, a ball of fire from an auto accident abruptly torpedoes forward, incinerating a further stretch of traffic.

This occurs too soon in the film’s running time to be classified as a spoiler, fully defining its trajectory; Una and Gunni fear the worst upon hearing of the location, and the relevant medical authorities soon confirm Diddi’s death as well as several others – it’s reported, fictionally, as Iceland’s most fatal road accident. Gunni and especially Una fear they’ve indirectly caused it, being responsible for his movements in the hours before, and must fully suppress acknowledging this owing to the arrival of his actual girlfriend Klara (Katla Njálsdóttir) to grieve after a short flight from her hometown.

When the Light Breaks situates itself in a particular greyscale, Northern European world, with Rúnarsson’s Reykjavík also recalling Joachim Trier’s Oslo as he centres on a restless female presence, both empowered and existentially troubled by her romantic choices. The film’s more compelling scenes also conjure the light bohemian milieu of The Worst Person in the World [+see also:
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, as a few vignettes take us around the corridors and studio spaces of Una’s art school, one highlight being a performance-art piece of two students wrapped head-to-toe in sticky tape, resembling Egyptian mummies. Alternative music from Björk to the late Jóhann Jóhansson (who contributes a memorable musical cue to the soundtrack) and the old Norse sagas define the country’s cultural offerings; these scenes seem to be contemplating what the emerging generation of artists might produce, and the sheer unfairness of such potential disappearing by way of an unforeseeable accident like the one depicted.

As said, the slender composite parts ultimately amount to a meagre whole, and whilst the narrative derives from Rúnarsson’s experience, engineering such a heartbreaking inciting incident feels like an unearned shortcut to the viewer’s pathos. More evocative is the dawning light alluded to in the film’s title, auguring new beginnings and permanent scars of grief for Una and Klara, two sides of a love triangle finding a symbolic rapprochement.

When the Light Breaks is a co-production by Iceland, the Netherlands, Croatia and France, staged by Compass Films, Halibut, Revolver Amsterdam, MP Filmska Produkcija, Eaux Vives Productions and Jour2fête. The Party Film Sales handles its international sales.

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