Cannes 2024 Review: WHEN THE LIGHT BREAKS Illuminates Coming-of-Age Sorrow and Grief

Icelandic filmmaker Rúnar Rúnarsson offers a contemplative and poignant exploration of grief and love over a single summer day.

Contributor; Slovakia (@martykudlac)
Cannes 2024 Review: WHEN THE LIGHT BREAKS Illuminates Coming-of-Age Sorrow and Grief

Icelandic filmmaker Rúnar Rúnarsson once again delves into the intricate and fragile web of human emotions in his latest film, When the Light Breaks. The coming-of-age drama, which unfolds over a single, seemingly endless summer day in Reykjavik, presents a young-adult exploration of grief, sorrow, love, and friendship.

Rúnarsson, known for his previous works such as Volcano (2011) and Sparrows (2015), has a knack for crafting deeply personal and introspective films. His narrative style is often characterized by a focus on the quiet, almost mundane aspects of life, which he elevates through implicitly drastic or tragic events utilizing as a conduit. This approach is evident as the story revolving around Una (Elín Hall), a young art student, and her experiences of love, friendship, and loss over the course of a single day after a tragic accident in a tunnel forces puts all of Reykjavík on their toes.

The film fits within Rúnarsson's filmography, which frequently explores themes of personal transformation and moments that define human existence. In Volcano, the story follows an elderly man coming to terms with his mortality and seeking redemption. Sparrows zeroes in on a teenage boy navigating the tumultuous waters of adolescence. When the Light Breaks continues this exploration, but through the lens of young adulthood, a period marked by both vulnerability and resilience.


Set against the backdrop of contemporary Icelandic cinema, When the Light Breaks stands out for its contemplative pace and introspective tone. Icelandic filmmakers often draw inspiration from the stark and beautiful landscapes of their homeland, and Rúnarsson is no exception. His use of natural light, particularly the unique twilight of the Icelandic summer, adds a layer of ethereal beauty to the film, enhancing its emotional depth.

The protagonist Una navigates the emotional terrain following the sudden death of Diddi (Baldur Einarsson), her secret lover, Una's interactions with her friends and Diddi's official girlfriend, Klara (Katla Njálsdóttir), become the film's emotional core. Hall's performance is a steeped in restraint; she conveys a wide range of emotions with minimal dialogue, allowing her expressions and body language to take the fore.

Rúnarsson's decision to set the film over a single day underscores the intensity of the characters' experiences. The use of longer takes and naturalistic dialogue immerses the audience in Una's world, making her pain and confusion palpable. The film's pacing, deliberate and unhurried, mirrors the slow passage of time that often accompanies grief.


The visual language of When the Light Breaks is intriguing with the cinematographer Sophia Olsson creating compositions that are both intimate and expansive. The film's use of Reykjavik's modern architecture juxtaposed with the natural landscape reflects the internal conflict of the characters, caught between their private sorrows and the public's collective grief. The recurring motif of light, particularly the two sunsets that bookend the film, serves as a symbol of the characters' emotional journeys.

Rúnarsson's script, while sparse, often ladens the dialogue between characters with unspoken tensions and hidden meanings. When the Light Breaks is a considerably more minimalist and lo-fi oeuvre compared to the director's previous outings. Rúnarsson utilized physical transgressions in Sparrows, whereas in his portmanteau film Echo, he goes into Ruben-Östlundesque acerbic satire. When the Light Breaks is more of a dialing back to his roots, to the poetical psychological realism of his early coming-of-age works.

The film screened at the Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section

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Cannes 2024

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