This unusual film, the first English language production by writer/director Kim Nguyen, is a partly metaphorical love story whose setting is as much a part of the tale as the script or characters. It was filmed on location in Iqaluit, a town close to the Arctic circle, during its mostly sunless, typically around -30º, ten month long winter. The starkly beautiful but bleak and potentially dangerous landscape serves as something of a metaphor for their story, a story of love and mutual sacrifice which has mythical overtones even though it is told in a brutally realistic way.
The central characters are Roman (Dane DeHaan) and Lucy (Tatiana Maslany), a young couple deeply in love, but both suffering from emotional turmoil, the source of their inner demons revealed only gradually. Roman is the town’s coroner, while Lucy is a former university student, apparently seeking admittance into a graduate programme. Although life in the unnamed northern town is simple, the couple have full lives, with a circle of close friends and a range of activities and interests, along with one another’s company. All is well until Lucy reveals that she has been accepted into her university programme, which would involve her leaving Roman behind for a lengthy period. Roman, who is recovering from a violent and abusive past, is unable to face the separation, and goes into a self-destructive decline.
Early in the film, a third character, minor but intriguing, is introduced: an adult male polar bear (played by a female bear, if it matters), who is first seen approaching the town. At this point, the magical reality aspect of the film begins to emerge, when the bear holds a brief conversation with Roman, in the gruff but melodious voice of legendary Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent. (Just to be clear, the bear is real, within the film’s universe; other people can see it, although only Roman can hear it speak.) The bear, which is meant to be a disguised god or spirit animal of some kind, offers condolences to Roman for Lucy’s upcoming departure, and gives him advice. Roman, however, is too distraught to listen, and he continues to spiral into deeper depression until he is rescued from an attempted suicide.
Roman is transported south to a hospital, and his fate becomes united with Lucy’s when she goes to great lengths to reach the hospital and comfort Roman. Her gesture of constancy reassures Roman, and he soon recovers – but before long, it will be Roman’s turn to help Lucy escape her own anxiety. As a result of terrible experiences in her own past, she continues to suffer from terrifying nightmares and the persistent feeling that someone dangerous is following her. With added guidance from his mysterious bear, Roman tries to help her.
The reunited couple return home and set out happily on a winter camping trip, across the frozen and uninhabited wilderness that surrounds the town. They grow closer; but at the same time, the brutality of the arctic, revealed in sights such as that of a herd of drowned and frozen caribou, is taken in by the couple, and indirectly informs their decisions as the journey continues. The pair travel deeper into the freezing wilderness, deal with an accident together, cope with the resulting injury and with mechanical breakdown, and continue onward, the trip becoming a metaphor for their struggles to sustain themselves as a couple.
The bear makes another appearance, warning Roman that Lucy’s “inner beasts” are still a problem, the imaginary threat still following her, and advising Roman that he will need to “burn them out.” The bear’s conversation with Roman – and Roman’s sheepish confession to the alarmed Lucy, “I have to tell you, I can speak to bears” – is slightly comical this time, disguising the seriousness of his advice to Roman, advice which will come up again as needed. Determined to continue their trek even when a blizzard threatens, they take shelter in an abandoned research station.
In the deserted structure, Lucy’s fears become unmanageable. She becomes certain there is someone else in the building. “I see him everywhere,” she confesses, becoming hysterical as she imagines a threatening figure from her past tracking her. Taking his bear’s advice at last, Roman takes drastic measures to “kill” Lucy’s inner beast with a symbolic but genuinely dangerous act.
As the blizzard reaches them, they are left unified and free of inner demons, but with their immediate future deeply uncertain, as Roman’s bear makes a final, reassuring appearance and leaves them to face their fate together.
This is a film which can only be enjoyed as a whole: characters, sound, landscape, and all. A description of the fairly straightforward plot does not get across the sense of danger coming from both within (the effects of past trauma) and from without (the unforgiving white wasteland surrounding the little town). There are some weak points in the plot, and a viewer must commit to the rather eccentric concept. The feel of the movie, the intensity of the link between the two main characters, and the mixture of the harshly real and the magical, is what makes this film compelling.
For further viewing:
Like Water for Chocolate (1992), Laura Esquivel’s story of 19th century Mexican lovers separated by family, shares some of the same magical reality overtones, as well as the same sense of tragic destiny, in an entirely different setting.
In Away From Her (2006, directed by the brilliant Sarah Polley), Gordon Pinsent (the voice of The Bear) and Julie Christie star as a long-married couple separated by cruel circumstances, in this sad but beautiful story of enduring love.