Smilla's Sense of Snow ★★★

Danish director Bille August became something of a celebrated figure following the international success of the art-house hit Pelle the Conqueror, a film that had the director linked to such as the Swedish great Ingmar Bergman. With such international and American acclaim behind him, August ventured into English-language films but found mostly critical derision, his film The House of the Spirits in particular receiving a critical savaging. There were nevertheless hopes that his English-language return to his European origins for Smilla’s Sense of Snow would finally establish him as more than a cult art-house director. The original 1992 novel by Peter Hoeg on which the film is based after all had been an enormous popular success throughout Europe and it was hoped the film would be true to the novel in featuring a strong, resolute and independent female lead. The responsibility for what was reportedly touted in anxious pre-release attention as potentially one of the great female roles in contemporary film went to Julia Ormond who, despite her presence in Legends of the Fall and the remake of Sabrina, also did not make the leap into American stardom. However, when the final film emerged, it did little to salvage the damage already done to August and quickly melted away.

Julia Ormond stars as Smilla, a scientific researcher with a special talent for analyzing snow. Although a native Greenlander, she lives in Copenhagen (where most of the film takes place) in an apartment block. One of her neighbors is an Inuit woman, with a young child whom Ormond and a neighbor are seemingly concerned about. She returns from work one day to find that the child is dead, said to have fallen from the roof whilst playing there. Ormond goes up to the roof and sees the tracks left by the boy. From these, she knows intuitively that it was not an accident but that he was possibly fleeing something or someone. Knowing that the boy was afraid of heights, she takes it upon herself to investigate. She pursues the medical examiners and finds that a respected doctor has performed a supposedly routine autopsy and found nothing anomalous. Back at her apartment, a male neighbor (Gabriel Byrne) seems to share her concern and urges her to continue the investigation. Although an unemotional woman, Ormond may be developing an interest in this quiet man. Her investigations do indeed reveal an unusual medical anomaly and as she goes back to the case of the death of the boy’s father some years before, she begins to suspect the involvement of a mining company headed by Richard Harris. Her efforts in turn seem to be causing distress to other parties.

With an excellent cast, Smilla’s Sense of Snow is a surprisingly depressing film although its early signs of portent are somewhat fizzled by the ending (the film’s final third being where most, indeed all, critics found fault). However, much of the film is a somber-paced detective story unfolding as both a narrative and psychological puzzle. It depicts a somewhat cold and remote woman emotionally, who nevertheless is drawn and indeed impelled by her own seemingly insatiable intellectual curiosity. However, in the increasing number of flashbacks devoted to her relationship to the Inuit boy, it is clear that this boy has in some way awakened feelings (maternal and emotional) that she has deliberately tried to suppress throughout her life. It is as though she has displaced sexual and emotional passion into her professional, objective scientific curiosity. Her investigation of the boy’s death represents for her the point where the coldly objective nature of the curiosity in her profession takes on a personal and even potentially liberating quality. She may also believe that she has let the boy down in some way, having perhaps projected her own repressed need for human contact onto the boy. Thus, the film is in effect a clever psychological portrait of an independent woman who has suppressed or displaced her own needs and is gradually forced to confront them as she starts to examine the consequences of the death of a child for whom she cared.

A strong subtext of the film thus concerns the notion of responsibility, of people for themselves and for each other. Depressing and even despairing in tone for much of it, the film deals with one woman’s renewed sense of responsibility (on many levels – personal, psychological and ideological). Her dedication to the case gives her a purpose that she lacks, and which she feels she must follow through, although Byrne’s involvement adds a level of manipulation that questions the degree to which she can indeed control her own fate, which is perhaps the object of the pursuit of truth and discovery. In her life, it seems as if she has attempted to control fate by shutting off her emotional needs. Her quest to solve the case is less to put the boy’s soul to rest, as she claims at one point, than to find fulfillment. She admits to her father at one point that for the first time in her adult life she is happy. The energy, risk and danger involved in the case have invigorated her, at least as much as it is possible for this closed-off woman to reveal. She realizes that it is through emotion that people can feel alive, and continues the case for with it comes the potential freedom of her long-repressed emotions, which she nevertheless still struggles to contain. At this context the film in resolution oddly stresses a realization of defeat – discovery can emotionally drain her rather than free her: she may be too closed off. Although the plot resolution may seem too unrealistic for some, the underlying character journey, invigoration and perhaps inevitable disappointment, is what really propels this film.