“Godland”, the film that should have won the Palme d’Or

There are always two Cannes Festivals: that of the stars and of the competition for the Palme d’Or… and that of the other sections, where we often come across younger directors, or those less known to the general public. It is also there that we often find cinematographic nuggets carried by unique looks.

This year, one of the most beautiful films of Cannes is Danish-Icelandic and not very talkative. It takes place in 19th century Iceland.e century, lasts two hours and twenty-three minutes and is called Godland. Said like that, the experience may seem dry, but this captivating epic, which is between the survival film and the historical drama, is anything but boring. Selected in the Un Certain Regard section, he could not compete for the Palme. It is nevertheless a major work, whose overwhelming beauty would undoubtedly have earned him an award in official competition.

At the end of the 19the century, a young Danish priest named Lucas (Elliott Crossett Hove) was sent to Iceland, still under Danish rule, to help build a church and photograph the local population. But before getting there, he will have to brave rough seas, then cross the country on horseback, surrounded by men who do not speak his language and seem to have little regard for him. A grueling journey that will test his faith and morality.

Inspired by 19th century photographse century found in perfect condition, the director Hlynur Palmason tried to imagine in what context they had been taken. The story he forged is that of a slow moral disintegration, of a man of faith who, pushed to his limits, proves incapable of living up to his ideals. “Morality was never a word I had thought of”observes the director, met in Cannes. “I didn’t even want to include it in the synopsis, because it’s not a word I’m used to. But I wanted to show someone who had ideals, and who is gradually annihilated and finds himself exposed.”

Survival in a colonial context

What strikes first in Godland, it is his sublime photography and his staging as refined as it is implacable. Filmed in a square format reminiscent of photographs from the era, the film is packed with majestic Icelandic landscapes, captured in all their menacing glory by cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff. The climate is sometimes unforgiving and the characters progress in the cold, the mud, the wind or the rain… even if, as the filmmaker points out, “It’s not a brutal winter”. In moments of calm, a magical light transforms the landscapes, “but in the heart of the wilderness, it becomes exhausting and leaves scars”explains Hlynur Pálmason.

The first part of the feature film, almost silent, is thus similar to a film of survival in hostile terrain, a quest both physical and spiritual of the same caliber as The Lost City of Z, Wildor The Terror. “We made a pact with the devil, or with the weather god”says the director. “We were lucky, because we had extreme rain at the start of filming, the rivers were overflowing. It was great and it set the atmosphere of the film.”

Tasked with documenting his journey with a heavy and cumbersome camera, successor to the daguerreotype, Lucas harbors growing animosity in the face of this indomitable nature, made up of glaciers, rocky plains and erupting volcanoes. But also in front of the other men of the expedition, much more serene than him in this primitive context.

An Icelandic “There Will Be Blood”

It’s not just the elements that are inhospitable in Godland. The priest’s traveling companions, too, seem to show little sympathy to our protagonist (who, it must be admitted, is not very sociable). His only ally is his translator – because Lucas only speaks Danish and struggles to communicate with the men who accompany him. The most impenetrable of them is Ragnar, a boorish and pragmatic Icelander who laughs at him when they first meet.

At the beginning of the journey, Ragnar thus suggests sawing in two the enormous wooden cross that the priest had brought with him, in order to relieve the horses. This stormy starting point will form one of the central conflicts of the film, which recalls in many points the conflicting relationship between Daniel Plainview and the priest Eli in There Will Be Blood (a title that would also have worked very well for Godland). Asked about this relationship, the director says he is flattered: “I do not hide the fact that [Paul Thomas Anderson] is one of the filmmakers I admire the most. […] If my work has been influenced by his, it’s probably unconscious, but it’s a huge compliment.

What seems to feed the resentment of the priest is that as nag as he is, Ragnar does not lack spirituality. He maintains a close relationship with nature and, every morning, he meditates barefoot on the grass, to practice exercises of Jørgen Peter Müllera Danish gym teacher. “It’s a very old sport, which was practiced a lot in Iceland”, explains Hlynur Palmason. “I remember my grandfather doing it in the pool, in front of everyone, and I thought it was really strange.”

Lucas, destabilized in these unwelcoming Icelandic plains, observes Ragnar with resentment, he who seems so at ease in his environment. “Instead of being vulnerable or accepting that he needs Ragnar’s help and being grateful to him, he still clings to the fact that he is in charge and knows better than everyone else”, analyzes the main actor Elliott Crossett Hove, for whom the filmmaker wrote the film. “At first, he tries in every way to hide his humanity. He hides behind the fact that he is very educated. He comes with the voice of God which symbolizes truth. He therefore thinks he is necessarily right, but we are gradually tearing that away from him. Over the course of the film, Ragnar the Bearded Icelander will become its main antagonist – unless Lucas himself is also an antagonist.

A flawed hero

At the very beginning of the film, Lucas, as he tries to learn a few words of Icelandic, says to his translator: “I am a man and a priest.” We don’t see him being a priest during the film, but his humanity, in all its weakest and most fallible form, is well and truly exposed. The more the film progresses, the more the imperfection of the hero is revealed. He is of fragile constitution, does not tolerate the boat trip well and drops to his knees from exhaustion only moments after arriving in Iceland.

Landed with a feeling of superiority, Lucas gradually realizes that he is in fact surrounded by better men than him. “I have a lot of sympathy for him,” says Elliott Crossett Hove. “I love him, because he’s so human, so flawed, but he tries to hide it. […] When he finally cracks, we can finally get to know him a little better, see what he’s really made of.

The film constantly plays on the oppositions, between modern Denmark and ancestral Iceland, the refinement of Lucas and the roughness of Ragnar. It also perfectly illustrates the many paths that can lead to spirituality outside of religion: from nature to traditional songs, through the intimate relationship with animals, which play a role as important as humans in the film. The director explains that he knew all the beasts crossed in Godland: “I wanted to depict animals as I see them around me. I shot where I live, so I had a strong connection with them. The dog in the film is that of my wife’s aunt. […] I know what they are capable of, so I write roles for them. […] The horse was very important at the time, it was a friend, an ally. Today, we are probably a little less close to animals, less close to death too.

This direct relationship to death, which will shake the certainties of the priest, is omnipresent in Godland. In one of the most visually overwhelming sequences, we watch one of the film’s horses decay over the seasons, in a deserted plain. “The rotting horse is my father’s horse, and I filmed him rotting for two years”says Hlynur Palmason. “I still film it, by the way, but today it has turned into flowers and grass.” Turning death into flowers and brutality into poetry is precisely what Godland, which will undoubtedly remain one of the most beautiful films of the year and to which we wish much success.

We would like to give thanks to the author of this short article for this amazing content

“Godland”, the film that should have won the Palme d’Or