Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bille August's Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997)

Smilla Jasperson, a scientist who works in the study of ice and snow, born of maternal Greenlandic descent and paternal American descent, lives in Copenhagen, and on the way home, she discovers a young Greenlandic child, Isaiah, to whom she has grown closer more than anyone living, laying dead in the snow in front of her apartment building, apparently having fell to his death from the rooftop. Smilla doesn't trust the police's explanation of Isaiah's death (an accident) but trusts her own intuition, "her sense of snow," and begins to investigate the mystery behind the child's death in Bille August's Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997).
To begin with, bad pun intended, Smilla's Sense of Snow is cold. Its opening imagery of an Inuit fisherman in Greenland with dogsled in tow, who encounters a mysterious explosion, which leads to a furious snowstorm to the imagery of the film's primary location, a very cold Copenhagen, the film's coldness is literal. August's film style appears the same way: classically composed, close-ups, medium, and wide shots punctuated by smooth and flowing tracking shots, accompanied by minimal use of soft music. Nothing is colder, however, than the performances within the film, especially of its primary character, Smilla, portrayed by Julia Ormond. Smilla is a wonderfully drawn character (Peter Høeg, who authored the novel of the same name, is a personal favorite of mine. His novel is brilliant, as are his other works. I recommend giving all of his work a read.) Smilla's cultural heritage seems to be born from complete polar opposites: her mother was a Greenlandic hunter, who lived within and lived off the land with an extreme reverence. There are multiple words within her language for snow. Smilla relates, in a dinner scene with shy, stuttering neighbor (Gabriel Byrne) that after her mother's death and her subsequent move to Denmark to live with her father, that she would not sleep indoors. Smilla feels a kinship to the snow and its magic. Perhaps this kinship led her into her current career and obsession: the scientific study of ice and snow, of which she is an authority, unmatched really by anyone in the world. This logical and deductive side is born from her paternal heritage: her father is a American scientist (Robert Loggia), also well-respected and held in repute, who very much loves his daughter yet doesn't really understand her. Smilla's cultural heritage is unique, and she is a unique character: beautiful, complex, intelligent, obsessive, and very cold. Despite her cultural heritage, Smilla is very much a member of the human race and should have emotion. Of course, Smilla does, but the rendering of these emotions are not felt by the viewer, neither from August's direction nor from Ormond's performance.For whatever reason, August does not want to let the viewer into Smilla's Sense of Snow. Smilla's angry and stand-offish (understandably, the viewer will later learn) and she often lashes out on the unsuspecting. For example, when Gabriel Byrne's character comes out of his apartment to offer something to drink or eat (really some company) shortly after the discovery of the child's corpse, Smilla angrily accuses him of preying on her supposed vulnerability: Byrne just wants to get her wrapped up in emotion and take advantage of her. Byrne's character sees behind her anger: he knows she's hurting and doesn't completely mean what she says. On paper this scene feels intimate and close; however, August's rendition is seriously lacking: medium shots from the two speaking from two different levels atop the stairs. The performance by Byrne is kind-of quiet and sweet but Ormond's performance doesn't resonate. Her emotion feels contrived, as if an actor is attempting to portray an actor's version of anger. Raw emotion from Ormond would have been welcomed but there is virtually none at all. Even her scenes with Isaiah, shown in flashbacks, are rigid and forced. The dialogue is unoriginal and trite: "Go away," Smilla says, "I'm not going to be your little friend." "Would you read me a story?" asks the small, sweet child. In a ridiculous, sing-songy mocking voice, Smilla says "No, I won't read you a story." Ormond's Smilla has similar scenes with the child: the real driving force for Smilla's obsession in the mystery is truly lacking: how is anyone supposed to feel for her?To be fair, Smilla's Sense of Snow appears as if its director and its performers were intimidated and confused as to how to render Høeg's complex novel. His novel is filled with emotion but a lot of Smilla's conflicts are internal. August, taking film's visual storytelling too literally, is unable to crack the transition from page to screen. The overall feel of Smilla's Sense of Snow, beyond its coldness, is conservatism: succeed or fail, August and his performers aren't going to take any risks. It's almost as if August just wants to objectively film the action and gamble that his viewer will be intrigued. Well, first-time viewers perhaps will: Smilla's Sense of Snow is a very intriguing mystery and it's worth seeing to watch it unexpectedly unfold. Then again, Høeg's novel is an expertly-rendered mystery, so I would much rather recommend it. A missed opportunity, Smilla's Sense of Snow should fade into obscurity as a would-be curiosity.


Mr.LargePackage said...

Hans, great review. It is unique like a snowflake, but sharp as an icicle and powerful like an avalanche. I was going to make some stupid puns, but I am too large and in charge for that.

forestaken said...

I love this movie! I don't know how I missed that you reviewed it. Love the review as well. I loved how he did everything so cold. You actually feel the snow and the wind while watching the movie. i saw this movie quite a few years ago. It was a blind rental. Had never heard a word about it. I thought it was wonderful.