gleams and radiance
by Douglas Messerli
Per Blom (screenplay, based on the novel by Tarjei Vesass, and director) Is-slottet (The Ice Palace) / 1987
Norwegian novelist Tarjei Vesass’ masterwork The Ice Palace (1963) is a fiction in which the central two figures, the 11-year-old girls Siss and Unn and those around living them in a small rural community say extraordinarily little and act even less, resulting in nothing of great significance except the passage of about one year, from winter to the next spring. The book is written in the secondary language of Norway, a language created by linguist Ivar Aasen in the 1850s based on rural, spoken Norwegian, currently used by only 7.4% of the Norwegian population. In my estimation, however, it is one of the most poetically powerful novels written in the 20th century, and its author is perceived in his homeland, along with Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset, as one of their most gifted writers of fiction.
In saying all this, I must issue a disclaimer of sorts. My press published this work in English, translated by Elizabeth Rokkan, in 1991, adding in a later reprint a short essay that Doris Lessing had written about the pleasures of the text she had written as a kind of review. Lessing gave permission to publish her essay as the introduction of my Sun & Moon Press version only.
In 1987 Per Blom made a film version of Vesaas’ fiction, which, although focusing more fully on the character of Siss, received general acclaim, winning the Grand Prix at the Flanders International Film Festival. However, only a VHS (PAL version) was released, in the same year as Sun & Moon printed the book in the United States. Evidently there has never been a DVD version and the VHS has long been out of stock. I saw it on YouTube in an obviously bootlegged edition with English and Hungarian subtitles and, accordingly, cannot attest for the quality, although it appeared to accurately represent the beauty of the film, shot mostly in hues of blue, white, some yellow, and a few occasional swatches of red as it had been described to me years earlier.
That this film might possibly show up on a list of LGBTQ films surprised me, yet I immediately comprehended why it might be described in that context.
Since there is so little plot it might be best to get that out of the way immediately before I turn my attention to what is represented in the silences of both the book and movie.
The story begins with Siss (Line Storesund) making her way to the house where Unn (Hilde Nyeggen) lives with her aunt (Metete Moen) one evening after school, clearly after having been invited by the shy and quiet girl who, new to the school, stands apart each day in recess, refusing to participate in the games of the other girls. All her peers seem to know is that her mother has just recently died.
Siss arrives, eager it seems to get better acquainted with her school mate, who sits next to her each day in the classroom. Unn’s aunt greets her and the two girls, smiling with delight in the event, soon after retreat to Unn’s bedroom, she locking the door so that the aunt will not intrude upon them. The girls, like pre-teens around the world don’t quite know what to say to one another as they sit side by side. Yet we can sense there is some inexplicable feeling between them, as Unn slowly attempts to move her fingers closer to her friend as if to touch her. She asks if Siss knows that her mother has recently died and that she has no father, or least they cannot find him. She has no brothers and sisters she tells Siss. Apparently she has been born out of wedlock. And at one point dramatically reveals to Siss that she probably will never go to heaven.
The girls both still seem slightly uncomfortable and shy until Unn, suddenly standing, suggests they undress, assuring the somewhat reticent Siss that it will be fun. They do so, apparently, as we watch them putting back on their clothes. We do not witness their nakedness nor do we observe anything that might have transpired during those few moments except that they book look at themselves, standing aside in other, in a mirror. When they have finished and Siss is about to leave, Unn asks her to keep it as a secret, Siss promising she will.
But suddenly Siss is frightened, disturbed by something and, after saying good night to Unn’s Aunt, runs all the way home, arriving, as her parent’s note, quite out of breath.
The next morning Siss discovers her new friend is missing from the usual place against the side of the school where she stands.
Bending, almost crawling through narrow spots Unn finally makes her way into the largest of the palace “rooms,” where exhausted and almost frozen she lays down to die of hypothermia.
For a long part of this movie we see the community spread out in rows, each holding a small lamp, in search of the missing Unn, calling out her name almost like a chorus of winter crickets. When they cannot find her in the forest or outbuildings they visit the waterfall where the school students were to have visited the next day. They cut and dig into the ice, attempting to bore down into the inner core of the ice palace but cannot find any sign of Unn.
At one point Siss observes them looking down through a hole to a large chamber below but we cannot see anything and evidently neither can they. Several ask Siss, at different times, whether Unn spoke of visiting the falls and whether Siss knows anything about where Unn may have gone. Her answer each time is “No.”
Over the next few days Siss falls into a fever, only gradually recovering. When she returns to school she now takes Unn’s place, refusing to play with her schoolmates. When she joins them on a ski trip to the waterfall, she asks to be left alone, looking into the hole below in the daylight, but again she can see no sign of Unn below.
When a new student appears in their room, asking whether he might sit at the desk that one belonged to Unn, Siss tells him that it’s taken, the teacher slightly reprimanding her by telling the boy to take the seat. “But if he sits there,” Siss mutters, “Unn will not come back.”
The winter passes and Siss visits Unn’s home, speaking to her Aunt for a few moments, while the elder packs obviously intending to now move away from the town. When she asks Siss again whether Unn has told her anything, Siss says she has promised to never reveal it. The Aunt suggests that she has expected something like that and encourages the now 12-year-old Siss that since Unn has died she can now feel free to share her secret.
As I said, this is a work of secrets and silence, a world created, somewhat as in Peter Wier’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1976), out of the fevered imaginations of young girls unable to even express what it is they have discovered or are keeping within.
What Unn and Siss have experienced apparently is something close to a childhood lesbian experience, a love that flashes its truth between them without their truly being able to understand it, let alone explain what it means. In Blom’s cinematic version, the young innocent Unn has covered her walls with posters of glamorous women of the Jayne Mansfield and Brigette Bardot type, women that in her frail frame topped by a small oval face surrounded by braids represent the sexuality she does not yet possess. And what she has shared or at least wanted to share with Siss is obviously related to that adult sexual world, the sensuous touch appeal of a woman’s touch and response.
In the novel, as they are about to get dressed again the two girls look into a mirror and see something there that frightens them: something like the first embers of passion or lust. Vesaas describes it this way:
Siss did not know what this was about, but she sat beside Unn on the
edge of the bed. They each held a corner of the mirror, held it up in front
of them, and sat without moving, side by side, almost cheek to cheek.
What did they see?
Before they were even aware of it they were completely engrossed.
Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the
looking-glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know:
Gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, from me to you, and from
me to you alone—into the mirror and out again, and never an answer
what this is never an explanation. Those pouting red lips of yours, no
they’re mine, how alike! Hair done in the same way, and gleams and
radiance. of the bed. They each held a corner of the mirror, held it up in front
of them, and sat without moving, side by side, almost cheek to cheek.
What did they see?
Before they were even aware of it they were completely engrossed.It’s ourselves! We can do nothing about it, it’s as if it comes
from another world. The picture begins to waver flows out to the edges,
collects itself, no it doesn’t. It’s a mouth, smiling. A mouth from
another world. No, it isn’t a mouth, it isn’t a smile, nobody knows what
it is—it’s only eyelashes open wide above gleams and radiance.
If this isn’t love, a love these young girls cannot even name, then how to explain it? Gleams and radiance. It is the vision of themselves in recognizing the pleasure of their own bodies.
So too is Blom’s long exploration with Unn of the ice palace all gleams and radiance, an almost hypnotic vision of sun against crystal. But in this case the gleams and radiance are also her undoing as she becomes so transfixed that she cannot escape the palace. The scene contains many elements of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Snow Queen about evil and devil-like trolls who convert the magic mirror of appearance from the good and beautiful aspects of people into the bad and ugly which they attempt to carry to heaven in order to corrupt the angels and God himself. God tosses the trolls out, the magic mirror splintering and crashing to earth.
Meanwhile on earth Kai and Gerda are neighbors, children very much in love with one another. But one day fragments of the mirror fall upon Kai and the love he feels for Gerda becomes cruel and aggressive. When he is stolen by the Snow Queen, Gerda must go on a long voyage to Lapland to find and help him recover. After a series of adventures involving the Snow Queen, a Finn woman, a Lapp woman, a robber girl, and a reindeer they return home to discover that only people with the innocence of children can enter heaven or spell out, as the Snow Queen demands, ETERNITY. And in this sense we can deduce that Unn sacrifices her own life and secret knowledge so that Siss can remain innocent.
By entering the underworld of the ice palace Unn becomes a kind of redeemer, an Orpheus undertaking to save her Eurydice from being bitten by the snake of cultural guilt.
In short we see Siss facing a future with the possibilities of bonding with and loving either sex, male or female.
Yet the very last vignette in the original returns us to the childhood story of The Snow Queen, the world in which Unn is still entrapped:
“No one can witness the fall of the ice palace. It takes place at night, after all
the children are in bed.
No one is involved deeply enough to be present. A blast of noiseless
chaos may cause the air to vibrate in distant bedrooms, but no one wakes
up to ask: What is it?
No one knows.
Now the palace, with all its secrets, goes into the waterfall. There is a
violent struggle, and then it has gone.
In Blom’s film as well, we realize in its last scene that the Siss we first witnessed is a finally a different being, that if she has not yet told Auntie by the end of the movie, she will surely write her to tell her secret that she and Unn had fallen innocently in love.
Scandinavian cinema has long been fascinated by juvenile LGBTQ encounters, including directors Lasse Nielsen, Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson, Lukas Moodysson, David Fardman, Håkon Liu, Anna Nolskog, Svend Wam, and others. Per Blom’s Is-slottet represents one of the best of the works in this cinematic genre.
Los Angeles, February 5, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).