An instant camp classic, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s bestselling novel starts off like Scandinoir written by committee, but quickly migrates into something much more extreme and enjoyable than that – the grand absurdity of a blockbuster in which literally nothing comes together, with Alfredson himself recently conceding that about one-fifth of the screenplay wasn’t even filmed. Given that the novel is the seventh in a franchise (all involving Inspector Harry Hole) and that Nesbo has already had several of his works adapted for the screen, there’s presumably something to the story, which revolves around a serial killer who starts to strike with the first fall of snow. Yet almost nothing of that makes its way to the adaptation, which could almost play as a perfectly pitched parody of Scandinoir in its studied seriousness, its lugubrious atmospherics and its convoluted plot mechanics. For all that the promotional campaign seemed to promise a cat-and-mouse game between killer and policeman, and a series of carefully orchestrated clues, there’s really very little forensic narrative here, with the film more or less subsisting on a series of free-floating tableaux that never quite congeal into anything resembling a procedural throughline. Given that Scandinoir is also, primarily, a televisual phenomenon, it’s perhaps not surprising that The Snowman feels more like a television series as well, producing odd discrepancies and disjunctions in pace in which some scenes feel too short, some feel too long, and some feel as if they require an entire episode to themselves, with a series of bizarre flashbacks just reiterating the impossibility of discerning any kind of rhythm to anchor the viewer’s gaze.
That migrates into camp quite quickly, partly because seriousness is a hallmark of Scandinoir, whose occasional touches of comedy tend to be quite muted or circumscribed, and partly because camp delights in arrogations of seriousness undercut by their own arrogance. In an era dominated by newer media, that seriousness has often been mobilised to insist upon the primacy of the filmed image, especially the digital filmed image, whose continuity with those newer media make it even more crucial that directors should anchor its parameters in an older and more traditional kind of analog seriousness. To some extent, Scandinoir has been a prime vehicle for this movement towards seriousness, if only because the palette and textures of Scandinavian landscapes and cityscapes are at once so sombre and so attuned to the visual register of the digital camera. Indeed, so emphatically has Scandinoir outlined a new digital seriousness over the last decade that American and English actors have either tended to gravitate towards Scandinavian roles or adopt a Scandinavian bearing and inflection in their acting manner. In particular, that studied seriousness has tended to produce a kind of robotic blandsomeness embodied by actors like Tom Hiddleston, Ryan Gosling and, above all, Michael Fassbender, whose manner is so arctically remote and world-weary that it was almost a foregone conclusion that he would eventually appear in exactly the kind of role that he occupies as Harry Hole in Alfredson’s adaptation.
The thing is, that also makes it feel as if Fassbender has played this part – and finished playing this part – long before The Snowman gets into gear, leaving him little to do but just skulk around one ponderous mise-en-scene after another, in the single most idiotically stylised performance of his career. Between this and Song to Song, we appear to be glimpsing some inexorable limit to the seriousness that his blandsome actorliness has done so much to promulgate over the last decade, just as the FX adaptation of Fargo represented a kind of limit to how much this seriousness could be domesticated and denatured in the process of being transplanted from Scandinavia to the Scandinavian Midwest. To be sure, Fargo undercuts this seriousness with a more Scandinavian quirkiness – the “Minnesota Nice” of Rose Nylund from Golden Girls – and yet with every gesture of playful irreverence the repressed seriousness returns with even more gusto, making for a strange hybrid of a series in which comedy and sententiousness eventually go hand in hand. What Fargo clarifies, then, is that this seriousness can only be punctured inadvertently, despite itself, which is exactly what occurs in The Snowman, and what makes it such a camp extravaganza.
Yet it would be unfair to attribute this self-seriousness to Fassbender alone, since his performance doesn’t really differ that much from those of most other English voices transplanted to Scandinavia, and is much more plausible than, say, Kenneth Branagh in Wallander or Steven Van Zandt in Lilyhammer. What makes The Snowman a disaster is the sheer scale of the English cast (including Chloe Sevingny in two roles) and their wildly, comically different impersonations of Scandinavian seriousness. The closest I’ve seen to that kind of Scandinavian ensemble the Sky Atlantic series Fortitude, which places Christopher Eccleston, Stanley Tucci, Michael Gambon and Dennis Quaid above the Arctic Circle amidst a swathe of Scandinavian actors. That’s an incongruous combination, and yet it (almost) works, thanks in large part to the way in which the inevitable accentual atonality becomes the basis for a genre-bending exercise that eventually approaches science fiction, and which transforms the seamless atmospherics of Scandinoir into its main object of forensic scrutiny.
In The Snowman, by contrast, atmosphere is precisely the problem. As if aware that the narrative throughline has been irretrievably compromised, Alfredson dissociates the film into still images whenever he can – through incessant and unnecessary cross-cutting; long shots that continually detach speech from any semblance of dialogue; CGI-enhanced drone shots inserted at the strangest moments and for the most non-descript shots; and a whole array of time delay and post-production effects that sequester each shot with a sculptural, synthetic sheen. Above all, Alfredson orchestrates the film around vacant, empty spaces that feel inexorably removed from any kind of narrative momentum, even or especially as they are supposed to function as the motor engine of the narrative. From Harry Hole’s apartment, which is perpetually in the midst of renovation, and the police office, which is perpetually on the verge of being furnished, these spaces can’t really do anything except act as a magnet for more atmosphere, accruing more and more dim, dusky, smoky light until it smothers, suffocates and swallows up all dialogue and narrative, leaving Fassbender utterly prostrate by about a third of the way through. For the most part, these spaces pretty much are the film, along with Alfredson’s connective tissue – an apparently endless series of cars going over sublime bridges, trains crossing vast expanses, and boats steaming up wintry wastes, all of which feel desperate to arrive at a mise-en-scene commensurate to the film’s ambition to craft an atmospheric immersion beyond anything ever envisaged by Scandinoir.
Of course, this scenario is different in degree rather than kind from regular Scandinoir, whose characters are typically enthralled and held captive by atmosphere, and which often seems to take place against the inevitable descent of a extended winter’s night. Yet it’s taken to such an extremity here that Fassbender is almost catatonic – the film would make just as much sense (perhaps more) without him) – in what could almost be a parody of David Fincher’s digital murk, and the desktop procedural of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in particular, since beyond a certain point there is simply nothing for Harry Hole to do except browse the internet, or to live his life with the aimless torpor of browsing the internet. In that kind of cinematic environment, narrative discursion becomes almost impossible, but the effect is not of a study in pure atmospherics, as seems to be intended. Rather, the presence of a narrative combined with the lack of any narrative possibility means that every atmospheric shot takes on a hyper-discursive, hyper-expository seriousness, as if we were watching a film explaining and demonstrating how to create atmosphere. The more it strives for incidental detail, the more every detail feels intentional, which would be absurd enough if the film weren’t already so absurd in its parameters, let alone in the free-floating details (a male stripper, a donkey mask, a pair of identical twins) that would have presumably been clarified if the final fifth of the script had been filmed.
What ensues is a kind of inane auteurism – or perhaps just auteurism taken to its logical conclusion – in which every single detail feels intentional and functional at the same time, and every single detail takes on a profound absurdity by virtue of that heightened intentionality and functionality. The more serious it becomes, the sillier it becomes, culminating with the modus operandi of the Snowman himself, whose own self-styled auteurism the film has to take as seriously as possible to have any chance of being taken seriously itself. Even before we get to his actual crimes, the Snowman’s preoccupation with children without fathers, and mothers who don’t permit their children a proper relationship with their fathers, would play as a perfectly pitched parody of a certain auteurist agon and anxiety of influence. Yet the ridiculousness of this motivational matrix pales in comparison to the Snowman’s crime scene signature, which pretty much consists of throwing small snowballs at his victims and then constructing a friendly-looking snowman after he has killed them. In between he tends to decapitate them and incorporate either their head or their body into a more macabre snowman, but the import of all this Gothic gore is lost in the absurd bookends that he constructs around each crime, which were presumably creepy on the printed page but don’t work at all as a visual or cinematic conceit.
This, then, is the camp kernel of the film – a serial killer who throws snowballs at his victims and then makes a series of snowmen for the police. As chillingly disarticulated as these snowmen’s faces are supposed to be, they just end up looking like a series of snowmen emoji, especially since Alfredson cuts to them so many times, and with so much pained gravitas, that they become domesticated very quickly. They’re creepiest when they occur at the edges of a scene, or as a detail in the backdrop, but the film generally opts to shoot them front-on, or in the midst of an empty expanse, where they gradually segue into a very different kind of Scandinavian sensibility, and one Scandinoir needs to exclude almost as a matter of course – the Scandinavia of cuteness, tweeness and cosiness, full of snowmen who feel more at home in an IKEA catalogue or a benign children’s picture book than in a graphic police procedural. Admittedly, some scenes have a hint of eeriness – Chloe Sevingy’s subplot is quite unsettling – but it’s quickly lost in translation, while Alfredson’s incredible work on Let the Right One In just makes The Snowman all the more absurd and denuded by comparison. For, in the end, this is just Let the Right One in with snowballs (the opening scene must be a direct quotation), and yet for that very reason The Snowman is destined to live on as a camp classic, delightful and – yes – refreshing in its utter inability to conjure up the studied seriousness that is so critical to its meticulously modulated moods and textures.