“It’s absurd to bring children into this world,” an embittered man tells his newly pregnant wife in 1957’s Wild Strawberries.
It’s a coarse moment in one of Ingmar Bergman’s coarser stories. Delivered from the relative prosperity of the 1950s, to an audience that would shortly awaken to the futurism thrills of the Space Race and the cultural opening of the 1960s, the line plays as stubborn Eeyore-ish egotism.
Flash forward a half-century, and the modern equivalent of the sentiment doesn’t feel so sadcore. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez casually tosses out a quote about millennials being reluctant to start families with sea-level rise a scientific certainty within their theoretical children’s lifetimes, and curious reporters discover she’s right (about one in three of us, at least). If it took a special class of self-consciously emo literary bro to poo-poo parenthood in the name of existential angst in Bergman’s day, questions of what it means to be a parent in a world destroyed by human consumption feel more like standard happy-hour chatter than top-shelf avant-garde posturing.
Woman At War affords us all a fresh chance to reflect on these grimnesses from the safe dark of a matinee. Our backdrop is Benedikt Erlingsson’s bright, glistening Iceland instead of Bergman’s black-and-white Sweden. Our question is not whether introducing new life is a cruelty, but what we owe to existing kiddos. And our noun is action, not paralysis.
You’ll get no radicalization narrative here. Halla, a choir director who looks perhaps 40 years old, is already at war when you meet her, weapons-first, in Erlingsson’s careful opening shot of a black-gloved hand threading a long arrow through some sort of brass cylinder. Popping backward to show Halla drawing her bow and arcing a shot up and over some high-tension powerlines, Erlingsson draws on the Ocean’s 11 approach to criminal cool with a rattling solo drum kit splonking and shuffling sporadically under the action.
A few quick cuts later and Erlingsson’s tied off an exquisitely paced expositional knot. Halla is sabotaging some sort of metalworks, the fifth time she’s managed to stop work at the plant. Police are sufficiently revved up about it to forcibly arrest a Spanish-speaking tourist bicyling nearby who they deem suspicious. The helicopter they use to pursue Halla’s tracks across the scrubby green-grey steppelands is as black as any Infowars fantasist could want. The turf farmer who reluctantly helps her elude them, seemingly more because he knows her grandfather than because he is willing to aid her cause, would rather she not come back. The government’s feeling heat from the Chinese, from Rio Tinto, and Halla’s inside man accomplice is desperate for her to quit while she’s ahead and publish her manifesto before they catch her and hush the whole thing up.
What unfolds over the next two hours inverts the old Bergmann formulations about generational debts and the morality of life in an amoral world. Halla comes into motherhood half by accident: An adoption agency she’d stopped expecting to hear from after four years’ silence suddenly has a girl for her. She wrestles with some ambivalence about accepting, but the bone she chokes on is about whether her personal war affords her time to be a parent to someone who needs one, not about whether it’s right or wrong to add new hearts and lungs to the pot of soup we’re all boiling in. Instead of chinstroking over procreation’s yeas and nays, life – lived young enough to expect they’ll be ongoing when your own ends – is a fact beyond Halla’s veto.
The ecoterrorist heist flick formula (if it’s a formula yet, given critical and commercial failure of 2010’s deservedly-forgotten The East) might drag or bore in less capable hands. But Erlingsson and cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson conspire to keep it fresh, arrhythmic, and gripping. The blue-green-grey palate they work in gets sometimes violated to specific narrative purpose. The camera bonks between playful dynamic shots and more staid, severe moments intended to illustrate the brute realities of climate change, rather than pound them pedantically. And the two do Soderbergh one better on the use of jazzy riffy crazy-sexy-cool music to go with a crime story, making the three-piece oompa-ish organ/drum/tuba combo that provides the noise into an on-camera character and avatar for the viewer’s bent-neck curiosities.
Bergman would be proud. Even if he might sniff at the idea that cinema should try to inspire action and not just contemplation.