“Stormy Weather” marks a return for Icelandic-American helmer (and former psychology student) Solveig Anspach to the health care terrain of her debut feature, “Haut Les Coeurs,” which starred Karin Viard as a breast cancer patient and played in the 1999 Cannes Directors Fortnight. Anchored by two commanding lead performances, from French thesp Elodie Bouchez and Icelandic novelist-turned-actress Didda Jonsdottir (in her film debut), new pic cuts a refreshingly unsentimental path down a highway festooned with “Rain Man” and “I Am Sam” signposts. More a rough sketch than completed drawing, however, pic doesn’t establish a deep bond between the viewer and the characters and therefore lacks emotional punch. Commercial prospects for this extremely low-key, mostly French language item look wan both at home and abroad, but fest interest and tube sales should be healthier.
Shot and set in Belgium, pic begins as a straightforward hospital drama. A mute, nameless vagabond (Jonsdottir) is brought into the psychiatric ward where Cora (Bouchez) is a relatively new staff physician. Something intrigues Cora about this highly functional, yet uncommunicative woman.
While the authorities attempt to piece together the mystery of the woman’s identity, Cora draws closer to her, arranging special doctor-patient outings and slowly bridging the communications gap.
Set-up could easily devolve into sentimental claptrap. But “Stormy Weather” has a truthful, matter-of-fact way about it, and if there’s one thing it doesn’t do, it’s to sanctify the mentally ill.
Midway through, pic shifts unexpectedly. The identity of the woman is discovered; her name is Noa and she is an Icelandic citizen from the volcanic island of Vestmannaeyjar (Anspach’s own home town). She is sent back to her home immediately to be reunited with her family.
And ordinarily, that would be the end of the story. Except that Cora, believing that separation could undo her patient’s progress, decides to follow Noa back to Iceland in order to see that she receives the proper care.
Although the evolution of “Stormy Weather” from medical drama to road movie is initially exciting, little of what follows on Vestmannaeyjar is as compelling as the earlier story. Anspach introduces a slew of new characters — among them, Noa’s husband (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) and a kindly local doctor (fellow Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur) who is something of a potential love interest for Cora.
When Cora finds herself marooned on the island for longer than expected, it feels like the film is manufacturing a contrivance to pad out its already very thin plot.
Bouchez and, particularly, the pale-skinned, wide-eyed Jonsdottir (with virtually no dialogue) give remarkably nuanced, deeply emotive performances. Yet, their complex relationship that starts in clear focus ends up getting lost by the end of the film.
Anspach does, however, continue to demonstrate a very effective, naturalistic camera style that gets very close to her performers without a hint of Dogme self-consciousness. Benoit Dervaux’s luminous cinematography makes strong use of natural light and grainy film stock to evoke the natural beauty of the Icelandic landscape without artificially “prettifying” it.