In late 2018, The International Panel on Climate Change declared a climate emergency, stating in no uncertain terms that mankind had only 12 years to reduce carbon emissions to zero in order to avoid the irreversible effects of a rapidly deteriorating climate. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world (predominantly schoolchildren, who will feel the affects of climate change more than those older generations in power) have taken to the streets to demand Governments follow suit and take decisive action, a plea with renewed urgency when various countries with far right leaders are already walking back the minor steps of the Paris Agreement.
What should be clear is that this is a grave crisis mankind currently faces – and arguably the worst possible time in which to release a film that argues environmental activists and their idealistic goals are unhinged and reckless. Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War may have gone down a storm at its premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, but a year later and any intended humour has gone stale really fast; it’s the belittling of a human climate emergency, depicted as a mere obsession of anarchist crackpots and conspiracists, that for the most part could play into the hands of any climate deniers who find themselves straying into an arthouse cinema.
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir stars as Halla, a seemingly normal middle aged choir conductor with a secret life; she is an environmental anarchist, heading to the Icelandic highlands on a regular basis to destroy the power structures put in place by a nearby aluminium plant. But as the Government increases efforts to catch her, and put a stop to her destructive behaviour and spread of her manifesto, she is informed that an application to adopt a child from war torn Ukraine has been improved. With a responsibility as a mother looming, she decides to do one last disruptive act so she can settle down for good.
Woman at War is best described as a kookier, more overtly comic cousin of Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves. But whereas her underrated eco-thriller added a moral dilemma that complicated the idealistic beliefs of her characters, Erlingsson’s film doesn’t appear interested in a similar dramatic conflict. Halla may be disrupting an aluminium plant’s power supply, but she’s taking steps to make sure nobody is harmed in the process; it’s a drastic and problematic form of action in its own right, and that’s precisely the issue in terms of its depiction. The urgent climate emergency that is motivating the character rarely warrants an insightful mention, making her destructive behaviour feel like the opposite side of the same coin to the actions of the mining company who put that infrastructure in place within the Icelandic Highlands. There is a way to depict the moral quandaries of destroying said infrastructure, as Reichardt proved, without simplifying the cause for a form of “foolish people on both sides” whataboutism.
But the film’s disinterest in the root causes of the protagonist’s motivations, simplified so she’s depicted as a cliched tree hugger archetype, would arguably not be so much of an issue if the film weren’t so insufferably kooky. For some inexplicable reason, Erlingsson takes a leaf out of the Jean-Luc Godard playbook, diegetically scoring the film with a live band who follow our protagonist everywhere and are never remarked upon by anybody. After an establishing visual gag, they disappear only to reappear every five minutes, appearing everywhere from rooftops in the city to the rugged landscapes beyond, an irritating visual quirk that’s never justified from a narrative perspective. Worse still, it appears to signal that we shouldn’t be taking the cause his protagonist is fighting for remotely seriously; even his epilogue, which unambiguously nods to the real effects of a changing climate, is undermined by the band once again picking up their instruments and reducing a serious issue to a mere visual quirk.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum