Writer and Director: Tinna Hrafnsdóttir
The quake of the film’s title is a psychological one, the eruptions of a character’s inner landscape following an epileptic seizure. The film opens with Icelandic writer, Saga, receiving a stern lecture from her publisher on missed deadlines. Saga, played with compelling intensity by Anita Briem, flees by fire escape and is next seen alone with her young son Ívar in a snowy park. She is clearly anxious, obsessed with his welfare. Do these scenes foreshadow the epileptic seizure she then suffers? Sharp fragments of successive scenes show its painful consequences. She lies helpless in hospital, an MRI scan suggesting there seems nothing wrong with her brain function. Why, she asks, is she getting headaches when she tries to remember things? Her doctor seems strangely uncommunicative, but are we in fact experiencing something of her disorientation? Her parents want to take control, encouraging her to return home with them. Social services have been alerted – there is talk of her being an unfit mother, her former husband filing for custody of their son.
Writer and director Tinna Hrafnsdóttir evokes disturbing uncertainty by withholding an overarching narrative point of view. We are drawn into Saga’s experience, but what are we to make of snatches of family conversation suggesting she has been displaying strange behaviour since childhood? Perhaps her family are right to insist she needs to be looked after. We glimpse her desperately trying to remember which floor of the apartment building she lives on, or, on borrowing a phone to call her ex-husband, unable to remember his surname. The power of the film lies in Hrafnsdóttir’s imaginative use of such small details to create the terrifying free-fall into the limbo of memory loss. There are faint echoes of Christopher Nolan’s 2000 Memento, but Quake has a highly distinctive flavour of its own. The wintry Icelandic setting, from empty parks of Reykjavík to the desolate landscape of a remote fjord, is a perfect analogue for the profound loneliness of that borderline place of mental disturbance which Saga inhabits.
The shifts in Hrafnsdóttir’s directorial gaze add to the film’s sense of uneasiness. An aerial shot shows Saga and Ívar, as tiny figures trudging through the snow. The sense of emotional remoteness undercuts the scene’s undoubted aesthetic qualities. Several times the camera lingers on the pleasingly clean lines of Reykjavík’s low-rise buildings, suggesting a world of order and containment. But it is Saga’s quietly pained face that the film returns to again and again in extended close-ups. She endlessly looks into mirrors and stares out of windows trying to make sense of a world she no longer recognises. The excellent cinematography by Tómas Örn-Tomasson is supported by Gunnar Árnason’s evocative sound design of wintry winds, heart beats, and the melancholy creaking of a child’s swing.
At first Saga’s family suggests cheerful normality. Her sister, played by Hrafnsdóttir herself, helps to baby sit Ívar, her mother (Edda Björgvinsdóttor) knits her a sweater, her father (Jóhann Sigurdsson) insists on bringing pots of lamb soup. He kindly reminds her that, like an earthquake’s aftershocks, further turbulence may still lie ahead. But this domesticity is destroyed when Saga starts to experience disturbing images from her childhood and begins to sense that they are repressed memories demanding her attention.
Suspense intensifies when Saga, banned from driving, borrows a car and drives in a storm along a dangerous coastal road, determined to discover what secrets are held by her family’s long-abandoned summer home. The film is a thriller, but a quietly profound one. Past trauma may lie not in the blood heat of criminal violence but in the icy depths of ordinary family relationships. The splinters of ice in the hearts of the central characters can only melt in the light of day. Quake maintains its secrets until its satisfying ending.
Quake had its World Premiere at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in November 2021 and will be released in Iceland in January 2022.