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A Snow Job on Thin Ice

Smilla's Sense of Snow
Cold Call: Low-temperature expert Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond) tries to break the ice in a winter's tale of murder.

Bille August's 'Smilla' makes no sense at all

By Richard von Busack

THE AUDIENCE-CHASING title isn't just for show. Smilla's Sense of Snow is unique: a downbeat James Bond movie. Except for a few peripheral characters, everyone is in a snit. Lead Julie Ormond mimes paranoia and grief by looking ready to bite someone. The Bondian finale finds our Blofeld surrogate (Richard Harris) so subdued and exhausted by cold weather and gray skies that he can only explain the reason for his world-domination scheme with a shrug: "Money. Power. More money and power."

Smilla Jaspersen (Ormond) is a gruff ice expert without portfolio--she's been kicked out of too many universities and labs. The daughter of a Greenlander mother, she has been pining for the fjords ever since she left for Denmark. Greenlanders in Copenhagen are the formerly colonized haunting the colony, and they apparently face some condescension. Smilla refuses an offer of a glass of wine with a sharp "Just because I'm from Greenland doesn't mean I drink."

When the neglected child of her downstairs neighbor, also an Inuit, turns up dead, Smilla knows that the child has been murdered just by looking at his footprints in the snow. The police, however, don't believe her, so Smilla looks for the killers on her own. We know (thanks to the opening sequence) what she doesn't: that the child's death is connected to a huge meteorite landing in 1859 in Gela Alta, Greenland.

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Online interview with star Julia Ormond.

Danish site (in English) about the
film and the novel its based on.

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Director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) has miscast Smilla's Sense of Snow throughout. As Smilla's father, Robert Loggia is insufficiently connected to the mystery (why is Smilla so ornery--was it incest?). Vanessa Redgrave shows up as a haunted Christian who passes on a clue to the mystery because the Bible tells her to do it. Gabriel Byrne, as the mysterious character called the Mechanic, is apparently the 007 of Denmark. His shy courtship of the furious Smilla spurs the response "What is it about you that makes me want to insult you?" He follows this rhetorical question, brilliantly, with his request for a kiss. Which she bestows upon him.

Peter Hoëg's novel of the same title is supposed to be good; I can't imagine that it depends entirely on similes between ice and Smilla's cold, cold heart thawing--or on a train of ludicrous coincidences, such as the villain explaining his whole scheme on videotape.

With its locations in Greenland and on the North Sea, it couldn't have been an easy film to make. Lord knows Copenhagen is an expensive place to shoot. Our sight of it in winter from an elevated view is impressive in its depressiveness. The Danish capital looks like a vast puddle of melted vanilla ice cream dominated by a mammoth Stalinist power plant topped with three enormous smokestacks. It hardly makes the world look worth saving.

This isn't to claim depth for them, but the Bond films have pace, lightness and heroes and heroines who enjoy the sport. Smilla's Sense of Snow, despite the expense of the action sequences (an exploding boat, a wealthy madman and deadly ice-worms), is undermotivated and lugubrious--not so much half-baked as deep-frozen.


Smilla's Sense of Snow (R; 120 min.), directed by Bille August, written by Ann Biderman, based on the novel by Peter Hoëg, photographed by Jorgen Persson and starring Julia Ormond.

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From the March 13-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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