A review of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, the movie.
I first encountered this underappreciated sci-fi mystery flick when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave it two thumbs up in 1997. Smilla’s Sense of Snow stars Julia Ormond and Gabriel Byrne and is based on the novel by Peter Høeg of the same name. And of course, now we can see it on DVD.
Smilla Jaspersen is a resident of Copenhagen, but she grew up in Greenland. She comes home one day to find the little boy from the apartment below hers. He is lying face-down on the sidewalk, having fallen from playing on the roof of the building. The young boy Isaiah was not just her neighbor; he was also her friend, probably her only true friend. And immediately, Smilla knows that something is terribly wrong. You see, Isaiah was scared of heights. She goes to the snow-covered roof to investigate, to see for herself. The police rebuff her, but to Smilla the evidence is clear. Isaiah was not playing on the roof. He was running from something, something so terrible that he ran right off the edge. She can tell from his tracks in the snow.
Near the end of the story, the plot gets a little crazy, and Siskel and Ebert had noted the crazy plot. But all I remembered from their review was snow and intrigue, a romantic image inspired by the cinematography. Directed by Bille August, indeed the film shines as art in its own right, even without a plot. Still, years after having watched the movie, reflecting back, all I remembered of it were the characters. Now, watching it again recently, I realized that it was the crazy plot itself that made these characters real.
Actually, the plot is not all that bad. Smilla’s Sense of Snow is a sci-fi flick wrapped up in an Hitchcockian thriller. The plot is full of twists and turns. And it all makes sense… if you accept the ending. Whether you do or not, however, Smilla accepts that ending, and that’s why, to echo Roger Ebert, “The plot is totally absurd, and I didn’t care that it was!” Actually, Smilla may or may not accept the ending. She may or may not even care. By the time the ending comes, she has invested so much of herself in her quest to find out who killed Isaiah, the screwy plot only serves to highlight her commitment to this passion.
The film makes exceptional use of strong language. Early on, Smilla says, “I’m sorry I’ve given you the impression it’s my mouth that’s rough. I try to be rough all over.” It’s rated R for strong language, some violence, and a sex scene. But none of it is superfluous. It all just serves to heighten the powerful mood.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow is not mainstream, as it sports neither the massive, glitzy, overdone special effects nor the shallowness of the ’90’s sci-fi movie. But watching it was an extremely enjoyable experience for me, one that I have repeated numerous times and will repeat in the future.