Directed by Bille August, based on the novel by Peter Hoeg
Screenplay by Ann Biderman
Fox Searchlight Pictures, 1997
Snow covers everything…except the truth
Julia Ormond stars as Copenhagen resident Smilla Jasperson, a reclusive, half-Inuit scientist who befriends a neglected Inuit boy who lives in her building. Arriving home from work one day, Smilla is mortified to learn that the boy has died in a fall from the building’s roof. Suspicious because she knows that her young friend was afraid of heights, Smilla probes into the “accident.” Her only ally is an enigmatic man known as the Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne), who also lives in the building and seems sympathetic. Smilla discovers that the boy’s family is connected to a mining company conducting top-secret research in her ancestral home of Greenland. Then she spies the Mechanic and the company’s president (Richard Harris) dining together. Is she a paranoid conspiracy theorist or a sleuth uncovering a bizarre murder mystery? When a retired secretary (Vanessa Redgrave) helps her make a critical discovery, Smilla sets off for Greenland, where the otherworldly, prehistoric answer to her questions awaits. Danish director Bille August’s previous film Pelle the Conqueror (1987) also concerned the bond between an adult Denmark émigré and a child. — Karl Williams, All Movie Guide
Half Greenlandic Inuit and half American, Smilla Jaspersen has been torn between two worlds her entire life — the world in which she lives and the world that she remembers. Brought to Copenhagen from Greenland by her father at the tender age of six, Smilla has never felt truly at home in her adopted country — its noise, its density, its claustrophobic constraints. As a result, she thinks more highly of snow and ice than she does of people and love. Smilla lives in a world of numbers, of science and of memories — a dark exotic stranger in a strange land. This intellectualized cocoon in which Smilla wraps herself is ripped apart by the apparently accidental death of the one person Smilla has allowed into her life — a six-year-old Inuit boy from Smilla’s native Greenland. Smilla knows that her young friend did not fall from the rooftop on his own. She is convinced that she has uncovered a shattering crime that is only the tip of the iceberg. —Film.com
Two lovely videos by Aragarna:
Notes from the screenwriter, Ann Biderman
I was worried about the character of the Mechanic. Something that had been allowed to unfold gracefully over hundreds of pages in the book would have to be abridged. I did not want him, a fully developed character in the book, simply to become an appendage to Smilla in the movie. Peter Hoeg had created a sort of role reversal–the Mechanic represents the calm, steady presence while this woman takes action and her life spins out of control. He is the one with the traditional female skills: cooking, keeping a beautiful home. He tends his roses. He embodies a kind of female energy and Smilla a kind of male energy. This was exciting and fun to deal with. I was concerned that the poetic autism he had in the book, evidenced by his dyslexia and stuttering, would not come across on film, and then came to realize that although he had no great verbal acuity, a kind of dignity and gravitas would see him through.
–from Karin Trolle: Smilla’s Sense of Snow: The Making of a Film by Bille August, Adapted from the Novel by Peter Hoeg,
published in 1997 by The Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York
(Smilla is climbing the stairs to her apartment when the Mechanic steps out of his ground-floor apartment. Smilla stops and regards him. He is very shy, can barely look at her.)
Smilla: Do you think his feet were cold?
(The Mechanic looks at her.)
Smilla: He always wore those sneakers. When I saw him lying there in the snow–the soles were so run-down. His feet must have been cold.
Mechanic: Would you like something to drink?
Smilla: I may be from Greenland, but I don’t drink.
(He nods. Wants to extend some kindness to her…)
Mechanic: Are you… Are you hungry?
Smilla: Look, I don’t want to share anything with you, okay?
Mechanic: Okay. Perhaps you can sleep. G-g-good night.
Smilla: Do you always stutter?
Smilla: I make you nervous then?
(He doesn’t answer her, just regards her steadily.)
Smilla: Don’t you think I see the way you look at me?
(She can’t stop, all her grief turning into pure vitriol.)
Smilla: What’d you think–we’d get drunk and fuck all night, fueled by our mutual grief? Is that what you thought?
(Dead silence. After a long beat…)
Mechanic: It’s okay, Smilla. I loved him, too.
Smilla (whispering): Yes, of course you did.
(She runs up the stairs, filled with shame and embarrassment.)
Elsa Lubing: The Devil assumes many forms.
Smilla: It’s one of those forms that I’m looking for…
Mechanic: Smilla, why does such a nice person have such a rough mouth?
Smilla: I’m sorry I’ve given you the impression it’s my mouth that’s rough. I try to be rough all over.
Mechanic: But you were never happy here?
Smilla: The only thing that makes me truly happy is mathematics…Snow, ice, and numbers…
(The Mechanic eats, listening.)
Smilla: The number system is like human life. First you have the natural numbers. The ones that are whole and positive. Like the numbers of a small child. But human consciousness expands. The child discovers longing. Do you know the mathematical expression for longing?
(The Mechanic still eats, shakes his head.)
Smilla: The negative numbers. The formalization of the feeling that you’re missing something. Then the child discovers the in-between spaces–between stones, between people, between numbers–and that produces fractions. But it doesn’t stop there…
(Takes another bite.)
Smilla: Because between any two fractions there’s an infinite number of irrational numbers like pi that can never be written down. They force human consciousness out beyond its limits. But it’s a kind of madness, because it doesn’t even stop there. It never stops. There are numbers that we can’t even begin to comprehend…
(The Mechanic observes her closely.)
Smilla: Mathematics is a vast, open landscape. You head toward the horizons, but they always keep receding–like happiness–like Greenland. That’s what I can’t live without–that’s why I can’t be locked up.
Mechanic: Can I kiss you?
(She is astounded by this request. Cannot look at him, looks at her plate. Then stands up to go. Before she can, he pours two glasses of champagne, comes close to her, hands her one.)
Mechanic: Smilla, it’s Christmas Eve. Toast with me.
Smilla: To what?
Mechanic: To Isaiah.
(She puts the glass down.)
Smilla: Don’t you understand? My heart is broken.
Mechanic: Then to a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.
(She shakes her head–he couldn’t possibly be this stupid. Then walks out of the apartment. He stands watching her, puts his glass down.)
Mechanic: Smilla…Smilla, don’t you trust me?
(She searches his face, wants to believe him. Looks as if she does, but then times it so a truck is hurtling toward them on the road.)
(And makes a run for it, just as the truck is bearing down. She beats it across the road by seconds. The Mechanic is stuck on the other side. When the traffic finally lets up, she is gone.)
Smilla: When I was little, I knew where I was going.
Smilla: I’m very lost now.
(The weak, early morning winter sun shines into room. Smilla and the Mechanic are lying close together in bed.)
Mechanic: What does it mean?
Smilla: Say it.
Mechanic: Pfff. I can’t say it.
Smilla (Laughs.): To practice rolling over in a kayak.
(Another now, faster.)
Smilla: —someone who has never mastered the art of rolling over in a kayak.
Smilla: Umiiarneq. A shipwrecked person.
(Her eyes fill with tears. His hand comes up to smooth the hair away from her face.)
Mechanic: You’re not shipwrecked.
(She takes his hand. Says one last word in Inuit)
(A beat; translates.)
Smilla: … to be deeply happy.
Moritz (Smilla’s father): Why are you getting involved in this?
Smilla: I told you before, a child died. It’s my New Year’s resolution to make someone pay.
Moritz: And this friend who dropped you off, he’s also involved?
(A long beat.)
Smilla: I don’t know. I don’t know him very well.
He has a repair shop which he never goes to. His hands are much too clean. He lies to me. I don’t know what he does.
(Moritz studies her face for a moment.)
Moritz: Are you in love with him?
Smilla: I’ve been trying to avoid it all my life, so now it’s here I just want to renounce it.
More promotional stills are in the Gallery.
When did you first know that you wanted to become an actor?
I didn’t want to become an actor. I didn’t become an actor till I was about 29, which is quite old for somebody to start in that profession. But I had been teaching up to that time, and I did drama classes with the kids. From then I became interested in theater and eventually in film. The first theater part I did had no lines whatsoever. I had to walk across the stage and just raise my hat and get out on the other side. Later I played the leading part in a play called The Hostage. My first film part came with Excalibur, directed by John Boorman. He offered me a part after having seen me onstage in a play in Dublin.
Do you still do theater?
No. I haven’t done theater for 12 years now. I prefer doing movies-always have. Of course, the direct contact with the audience can be exciting, but the immediate rapport between the audience and the stage is something that dies every night with the play. Some actors are addicted to it. I’m not. But I think that I may go back and do a play next year sometime, just for the experience.
What was it in the Smilla script that made you accept the part?
I read the novel about three years ago, and I really loved it. On the one hand it was a thriller and on the other hand it’s an emotional story. I really liked all the characters. The character of the Mechanic is a mystery, an enigma, and to play a mystery or an enigma is difficult. I like that; you have to mislead the audience but you also have to make them believe in you and at the same time doubt you. That’s an interesting game to play. Because the Mechanic should be mysterious and most of him should be hidden, so that the audience doesn’t quite know him. When he says to Smilla, “Don’t you trust me?” and she looks at him and says, “No!” the audience shouldn’t either. I find that very interesting, but I think it’s the last kind of mysterious part I’m going to play. I’ve already played too many!
The Usual Suspects for example.
Yes, in The Usual Suspects I was also this secretive guy. So that’s it now for mysterious parts.
This is not the first time you’ve been shooting in Denmark.
No, I did Prince of Jutland, too, with Gabriel Axel, and I had a great time doing that picture. A lot of really good actors…and Gabriel himself. I have really happy memories of Copenhagen. So I was glad to come back again and work in Denmark-and to work with Bille, whom I had already met in New York when he was casting The House of the Spirits a long time ago. We didn’t work together that time, but I met him again in New York when The House of Spirits came out. He is a very calm director. Very calm and logical. Never looses his cool, which is amazing on a film like this, because it was quite a difficult film from every point of view.
Did you like Greenland?
Greenland was amazing. It was a country I’d never been to before and I knew nothing about it. It was like being in the desert, except it was a desert of snow. And when you’re in a wide-open space like that you feel that man is subservient to nature. You feel that you’re really just a visitor. Everywhere else man has control of the environment, but not there. Yet at the same time you go into a supermarket and they’ve got compact discs and Disney toys. So it’s a combination of the primitive and the 20th century. It was really interesting from that point of view as well.
You’re Irish, but you don’t live in Ireland.
No, I live in Los Angeles. I have two kids, so I live there to be near them. But I miss Ireland. I have a house there and I still miss living there all the time. It’s tough to live in America.
What is it that is so special about Ireland-this strong feeling Irish people have for their country?
I think a lot of it has to do with history and a lot of it has to do with the nature of the people themselves. We are a very friendly, hospitable, passionate, melancholy, witty, curious, introverted kind of people. We’re all those things. And it’s in incredibly beautiful but also very troubled country. However, the people are what make the country, and the people are really unique. There’s nobody else in the world like the Irish. It is, of course, easy for me to say that, but the German people, for example, are in love with the Irish; Irish music, everything. And the Danes came to Ireland before anybody else, and they obviously knew where they were going. They knew it was a good place over there.
Playing the Mechanic, you had to stutter. Isn’t it difficult to concentrate so hard on your language and still be able to concentrate on the rest of the acting? How can you do that?
Well, I used to stutter when I was a kid, so it wasn’t anything that I had to think about. I don’t really stammer anymore now, but sometimes, when I’m very, very tired I can stammer a little bit. It disappeared by itself. I know people who’ve worked hard at it and it hasn’t gone away. But I was lucky, I guess.
What do you do to prepare yourself for a part?
I just read the script a couple of times. And say the lines. Then wait for the director to say what’s good or bad. But I think that the best thing is just to read the script as often as possible. I’m not really somebody who researches, because I believe that every role an actor plays is basically playing himself, even though most actors like to think that they’re becoming somebody else. I don’t think they are. I think they’re just themselves. And whatever it is you have to play, it should come from inside you. Sometimes you need to learn about various things, but it mostly comes from inside.
Do you have a favorite movie?
I have a lot of favorite movies: Fellini’s Amarcord; The Four Hundred Blows, by Truffaut; Brief Encounter, by David Lean; Raging Bull by Scorsese; The Quiet Man, by John Ford. A lot of favorite movies. I love a lot of Bergman’s movies-not all of them, but I love Fanny and Alexander.
As an actor, you travel a lot, which means you’re away from home for long periods of time. How do you maintain a close relationship with your children, you family, and your friends?
I try to work as little as I can, it’s as simple as that. I have to work: I have to live; and I try as far as I possibly can to do films that don’t take me away from home for long periods of time. Smilla’s Sense of Snow is the longest film I’ve ever done, and for that reason I was somewhat ambivalent about doing the part, because it meant I had to be away from my kids for 12 weeks. I’ve never really been away from them for longer periods than 3 weeks at a time. You know, I think that anybody who works in the movie business works very hard, and people pay a very high price for being in movies; a very high price which I don’t really want to pay. Because I don’t think that any movie is really worth the price of what people have to give up.
–Interview with Karin Trolle, from Smilla’s Sense of Snow: The Making of a Film by Bille August, Adapted from the Novel by Peter Hoeg,
published in 1997 by The Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York
She’s aided in some of these investigations by her neighbor in the building, a man named the Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne). They are even drawn toward each other, although his motives are murky. What does it mean that she sees him at dinner with the head of the mining company (Richard Harris)? Less or more than it seems? I cannot describe the impact of these scenes because they are so visceral. Ormond embodies Smilla–her iciness, her determination, her anger. She creates an interesting character: one who intrigues us to such a degree that when she is doing nothing, we’re reading motives into her inaction. Ormond has a beautiful face, less full here than in Sabrina, and the fact that she will not “let” it be beautiful–that she separates from the world around her with an almost painful defensiveness–makes her, paradoxically, more attractive. Byrne, who specializes in men who women love but shouldn’t, plays a hesitant but smooth operator.
Smilla‘ also works as a character study: We are intrigued by Smilla, by her quietness, by her strength. In a better world with more curiosity, we could have had this movie without any of the Greenland scenes. It could have been about Smilla and her neighbors. In our world movies need a plot, I guess, and so this one has one. Ignore it. It’s irrelevant to the movie’s power.
This story has now been gracefully adapted by Bille August into a sleek, good-looking film that captures the book’s peculiar fascination. Readers of Mr. Hoeg’s best seller will find this a faithful film that mirrors the novel’s strengths– a tough, interesting main character and a strong sense of place — while also sharing its plot problems. ”Smilla’s Sense of Snow” begins grippingly, then devolves into ever less credible derring-do as the action turns Smilla from a self-styled detective into an adventurer. The story finally leaves credibility behind as it sails off to the frozen north.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow works best when it focuses on the character of Smilla. She is a truly intriguing and complex creation, but the movie fares less well as the story turns more to action-suspense. Smilla becomes much too resourceful for her own good. She becomes an expert pickpocket to grab an attorney’s wallet and she pushes over bookshelves to ward off a pursuer and whacks him in the head with a flashlight. She takes evidence to an expert for analysis, and in cliched fashion, the expert gets killed. We even get scenes with Smilla using a dumb waiter to do a little undercover work. The further we get into the movie, the more routine and predictable it becomes. And that’s a shame because the early scenes are intriguing and mysterious, creating a quiet mood of desperation and alienation. But as the movie develops, the plot contrivances become sillier and noisier. Eventually the contrivances overwhelm the movie.
During the first half, August establishes an uneasy, edgy atmosphere, helped considerably by the stylish editing of Janus Billeskov Jansen, who uses an unusual number of abrupt dissolves. Evidence given to the dogged Smilla by another doctor (Jim Broadbent) about a needle mark on the dead boy’s body, and by the former accountant for Greenland Mining, the deeply religious Miss Lubing (another scene-stealing cameo from Vanessa Redgrave), only increases the mystery. There is also the enigma surrounding the Mechanic, who is obviously attracted to Smilla and yet who might possibly be in league with the bad guys. August directs these scenes with considerable skill and respect for the source material. For most of the film’s first hour, the metaphysical mystery is tantalizingly well-realized.
Behind the Scenes Book:
Karin Trolle: Smilla’s Sense of Snow: The Making of a Film by Bille August, Adapted from the Novel by Peter Hoeg, published in 1997 by The Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York
Composers: Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams
Smilla’s Sense of Snow: (Harry Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer) Based on the thrilling novel by Peter Hoeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow features a half-Inuit scientist (performed by Julia Ormand) who is compelled to investigate the mysterious death of a neighbor boy. Naturally, the growing complexity of the circumstances of the boy’s death begin to grow to full-blown conspiracy levels and the wintry adventure takes us on a tour of Denmark and its colonies with several top flight actors at the helm. Directed by Bille August, the film came and went through the theatres like one of the free-floating snowflakes in its tale, with even the score flying largely below radar. The murder mystery has a span of science that extends 140 years and, in the age of criminal mischief when concerning potentially scary discoveries, ends up dancing on the edge of fantasy and science fiction by its conclusion. At its core, however, Smilla’s Sense of Snow is a slowly developing and soft mystery with occasional thrilling jolts and an atmosphere of constantly dreary weather. The score, interestingly, could be described with exactly the same words.
1. Greenland: Anno 1859 (4:14)
2. Isaiah’s Theme (2:06)
3. Smilla Learns More (4:22)
4. Threatened with Jail (4:47)
5. Who is the Mechanic? (4:26)
6. Secrets of the Ship (7:11)
7. Chase at Sea (8:07)
8. Greenland Revisited (10:28)
9. The Truth Revealed (6:41)
10. End Titles (2:23)
There is nothing more terrifying to a fine bartender than the whir of a blender battering away at ice cubes. Yet there is nothing more calming to Smilla than being around water that has fallen to the freezing point—and drinking. Smilla wants something comforting and familiar while shuttling between Greenland and Denmark, an outsider caught in the purgatory between two cultures…
Thanks to Daniela for the amazing set of screencaps, Aragarna for the fan videos, CorFidele for promotional stills, and Stephanie for the great interview.