Braving the Elements


Smilla's Sense of Snow

Lagoon Cinema

I SUPPOSE SOME people's version of hell would be a Scandinavian movie: sing-songy dialogue in darkened rooms, people being mean to each other in bad weather. Not mine. Even aside from my ethnic roots, this world imprinted itself on me at an early age--my very first subtitled film was Swedish. So whenever a new Nordic movie comes around, I can't help thinking, maybe this'll be like the first time all over again.

At first glance, Smilla's Sense of Snow has that promise. It's directed by Bille August, who broke the darkened-room stereotype with his first U.S. release: a sweet, Beatles-era teen melodrama called Twist and Shout. Taking on an international bestseller this time (by fellow Dane Peter Hoeg), August opens Smilla with the motif of staring: first a patient Inuit seal hunter in 1859, so fixed on a seal's blow hole that he barely notices the meteor-driven tide heading his way; then the hard-rock 20th-century gaze of Smilla herself (Julia Ormond), as she's told some news she doesn't want to hear.

I could live with a movie built on staring. Smilla is half-Greenland Inuit and half-Danish-American. She's been on the toughest Arctic expeditions. She's a clothes-horse and a grump, and it's winter. She has a right to stare back at people, for race and gender reasons as well as the fact that her cherished friend, a 6-year-old Inuit boy, has just died and was probably murdered. Since Smilla has had no interest in much else, and feels no attachment to nationality or any other person, solving this boy's death becomes the thing to do. And since the mystery seems to involve corporate and government complicity in other murders, there's a reason to root for the sour-faced Smilla.

Solving the crime would also take her on a path toward resolving the many rich themes in this story: corporate greed, racial imperialism, alienation from "home," rediscovery of a spiritual purpose. But as August and his screenwriter (Ann Biderman, who also wrote Copycat and Primal Fear) follow the same thread as Smilla, their eyes are diverted toward the more commonplace. Smilla is intense, but the people she's investigating are weirder at every glance, so the filmmakers watch these distractions instead. Smilla is pretty, so they give her a romance with the mysterious man in her building known as "the Mechanic" (Gabriel Byrne), who's also grieving the boy's death. And Smilla's widowed father has a new young mistress, so they investigate just how bitchy she can be.

But why bother? The weirdest and most fateful path the movie takes is the same one as the book's: Smilla chasing the bad guys to Greenland itself, where (supposedly) her ability to "read" snow will soon pay off. The story even ends in a giant ice cave--a perfect womblike setting for the heroine's return to the homeland. But... not much happens. Smilla figures out the story even before reaching Greenland, and the Mechanic's true identity is revealed. So all that's left is for Smilla to stare once more, while a big (and barely explained) villain sinks on a clump of ice.

This is a big finish? August has already met the gripes of Danish film critics, who feel that he betrayed his countryman's novel by stretching for some James Bond-style action. (The plot does involve a powerful meteorite and a prehistoric worm, and the bad guys have hi-tech stuff in the grungiest places.) But, to be honest, Bond-like would be just fine: Throw in a chase at Tivoli Park or Legoland, have Smilla smash a pastry in the Mechanic's face, whatever. The contrasting route would be fine, too: Pump up the staring, introduce some more Inuits, get the world enraged at a tiny country's ostracism. Use more darkened rooms and even worse weather.

But August is a cautious director, and what he's done is take a half-defined middle road, which is really no road at all. He's had his share of successes and failures in the past--Pelle the Conqueror among the former, and The House of the Spirits among the latter. His skills are actually better applied to more intimate, less outlandish material; for proof, see his epic Jerusalem, about late-19th-century zealots who leave Sweden for the Holy Land and a Christian utopia gone wrong, which is slated to open here next month. Meanwhile, consider Smilla a dystopia that doesn't really happen.

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