Twilight of the Ice Nymphs Commentary
Loosely based on Pan (1894) by Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) is a surreal melodrama by Winnipeg Director, Guy Maddin whose work is interesting both for its use of intentionally, grainy, 16 mm. black and white footage (Tales from the Gimli Hospital, 1988) and his experiments using 35 mm. to shoot in both colour and black and white (The Saddest Music in the All the World, 2003). Maddin’s fascination with the visual style of silent films adds an additional layer of interest for the viewer.
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is set in a pastel, dreamy landscape on the island of Mandragora, a place where the sun never sets. The island takes its name from the root of the Mandrake plant, which has hallucinogenic properties and which is reputed to be an aphrodisiac. Mandragora is therefore Maddin’s creation of a static, otherworldly space that is full of longing but not fulfillment; his characters spend their time reaching for ideals that continually elude their grasp. Like the doomed characters in Racine’s neoclassical drama, Andromaque, everyone loves someone who loves somebody else.
Dr. Solti (R.H. Thomson) adores the statue of a goddess, even though she has refused him by falling on him and crushing his leg. He raises the statue again, blaming himself for the incident: he is not worthy of the goddess – yet. Zephyr (Alice Krige) wanders the Island, presumably looking for her sailor husband who has been lost at sea, but actually searching for freedom from her marriage to him. She has tried to find freedom in numerous ways, through appeals to the goddess, through murdering her husband and, most recently, through lusting after Peter (Nigel Whitmey), who has just returned from four years in jail as a political prisoner. In despair, Zephyr tells Dr. Solti that she wants her life back.
For his part, Peter has just come to Mandragora on a ship by sea. While on board, Peter has met and become infatuated with Juliana (Pascale Bussières), who is on her way to Mandragora to meet up with her putative lover, Doctor Soltis. For her part, Juliana, is attracted to Peter, telling him that, for her, love means that they should surprise each other every day; she is repulsed by the banal, the conventional. This is likely why she seems unable to leave the hypnotic Dr. Soltis, whom she does not love, but who provides her with diversions. Peter’s sister, Amelia (Shelley Duvall), has been patiently keeping the family’s ostrich farm running for four years with the help of their hired man, Cain Ball (Frank Gorshin). Amelia is in love with Dr. Soltis, who barely knows she exists. Cain Ball, on the other hand, is in love with the ostrich farm, which he desperately wants to own.
Aside from laying out a dysfunctional network of love, lust, and longing, Maddin refrains from plot as much as possible, choosing instead to let the net effect of this emotional stew of frustration, dirty secrets, and half truths work on the minds and hearts of the protagonists.
The eerie, colour-soaked atmosphere of Mandragora prevents reality from making any incursion. The island represents a sort of sensuous limbo where days and nights blend into one. Dr. Soltis controls people using a variety of mind games. It seems that the only way the characters can get any perspective is through physical pain. Dr. Soltis has already been horribly wounded by the statue. Peter shoots himself in the foot: probably, he says, on purpose. Amelia pounds a nail into Cain Ball’s head before setting his hut on fire; he escapes and spreads broken glass in Amelia’s house so that she will cut her feet. When Zephyr kisses the goddess, her lips begin to bleed. Each painful experience causes the character to re-assess his or her situation. Dr. Solti realizes that he has been too forward with the goddess; it is not yet time. After shooting himself, Peter understands, even for a brief moment, that Juliana does not love him; he laments that what he still has, she does not want. He accuses both Solti and Juliana as being a crime against nature. After attacking Cain Ball, Amelia realizes that he is desperate enough to hurt her so that he can inherit the farm; she decides to give him the deed. He succumbs soon afterwards. Amelia also accepts that Dr. Solti will never love her and frees herself from the bonds of unrequited love. When the goddess bites her, Zephyr knows that she will never be free from her past and allows the statue to crush her.
All this emotional torment and physical pain has no seeming effect on Mandragora. It is timeless and unchanging. The one character who is at odds its conceits is Peter. We are never told what incident on this island, where everyone is held in thrall by desire and longing, could possibly have made him a political prisoner. But, he has definitely returned as an outsider. It is as though he were the only black and white character in the midst of all that enveloping colour. At one point, Peter accuses Juliana and Soltis of being a crime against nature. He calls on the trees to suffocate all that is false. The wind comes up. The branches wave wildly, but nothing happens. Dr. Soltis smirks. Nothing will happen on Mandragora because nothing can happen. It is both the backdrop and the cause of their emotional malaise. Which is what makes the ending so striking, for it is Soltis and Juliana who leave on the next ship. Amelia and Peter watch them from the seashore. Then she turns to her brother and says, “Kiss me.”