They might fuel stereotypes (like certain ones involving igloos and hockey), but snowy winters are also a ubiquitous part of the Canadian experience. There are no southern provinces that stretch close to the equator to bring winters full of sun and warmth, but there is lots of northern land swathed in snow and ice. As such -- loved or loathed -- snow is a yearly and universal Canadian gift, one that runs straight through the heart of Maple Leaf cinema.
To dig into Canadian filmmaking is to dig a comfy fort into the snow, one that screens any number of wintry treatments -- a meandering and pensive look at dangerous wintry accidents, Inuit resolve, hypnotic danger or the verbose dangers that befall a lonely little Ontario town. In one vision, the white landscape will evoke a sense of peace and comfort, and in another, a sense of isolation and menace.
Stuck in the middle of a cold and blizzard-packed winter, there's no better time to dig into that snowy cinema and bask in the cinematic light when it's so cold and dark outside. Hit the jump for our 10 essential wintry Canadian tales.
'The Sweet Hereafter'
Arguably the most iconic of snow-laden Canadian cinema, and a two-time Oscar nominee to boot, Atom Egoyan's 1997 film details the aftermath of a tragic school bus accident in small-town British Columbia. The snow is a passive menace, one that visually evokes a heavy sense of isolation as each adult citizen deals with the loss of the town's children, while also offering a juxtaposition between beauty and horror. The snow both hides the harsh reality and reveals it.
Teaming Canadian writer Tony Burgess with 'Hard Core Logo's' Bruce McDonald and powerhouse Stephen McHattie resulted in one of the most unique and cerebrally kick-ass horror films to hit the screen in years. McHattie plays Grant Mazzy, a downgraded radio personality who faces a deadly zombie outbreak during one wintry day. The snow increases Mazzy's feelings of isolation and professional futility, while also hiding the horrors that are growing through Pontypool. That snow keeps its players running through the church's confines rather than out the front door.
'The Saddest Music in the World'
Referred to by Slant as "snow globe cinema," Guy Maddin's Depression-era comedy uses the white stuff as a signifier of isolation, a mark of insanity and a reason to be really, really sad. Well, to be more specific, sad in a way that leads to a joyful slide into a large vat full of tasty and taboo brews. It's as if Maddin scraped the frost from his beer mug one day, and as the crystals fell into clumps on the table, a manic world bubbled up from the far reaches of his highly unique vision.
'Away From Her'
In 2007, 'Sweet Hereafter' star Sarah Polley added her own cold vision to the Canadian lexicon with her directorial debut. 'Away From Her' follows a loving couple in their golden years as one is stricken with Alzheimers. No stranger to how snow can reflect consciousness, the winter landscape is a visual metaphor for the memories hidden, or erased, in Fiona's (Julie Christie) mind.
'Scott Pilgrim vs. The World'
And for some films north of the 49th parallel, the snow isn't so much an active participant or metaphor in the film as much as it is a necessary ingredient for the landscape. Scott Pilgrim's got more important things to think about than frigid precipitation -- he must fight seven evil exes -- so the snow is simply a subtle Canadian signifier. It allows Scott and Ramona to bond in the snowy month of April, and for her rollerblades to melt a path as she skates down the street.
Even though, to the sun lovers of the world, snow is a signifier of everything cold and uncomfortable, 'Snow Cake' offers up the white flakes as an instrument of gleeful love. Alan Rickman plays a man who befriends the autistic mother (Sigourney Weaver) of a young hitchhiker killed after he picked her up. Weaver's Linda adores the snow, and in a world she sees very clinically, snow brings her ecstatic physical release as well as the blissful framework to remember her daughter.
'The Snow Walker'
We see wintry precipitation as a thorn in our modern sides, but framed as an environmental reality, it becomes only vaguely different from any other everyday occurrence. Barry Pepper plays a pilot in the '50s who agrees to fly a sick Inuit girl to a hospital, but crashes before he reaches his destination. The sick girl teaches him how to survive, and their isolation and proximity allows him to shed his misconceptions about those who thrive in the challenging Arctic.
'Nanook of the North'
Of course, the quintessential look at Inuit life in the snow is Robert Flaherty's classic 1922 documentary. One of the first films selected for preservation by the Library of Congress, 'Nanook' isn't quite a hands-off, no-influence documentary -- Flaherty came under attack for staging scenes -- but it is a film that distinctly impacted the public consciousness.
When snow meets Guy Maddin's docu-fantasia vision, Canadian winters are injected with a burst of manic adrenaline. Winter brings an ironic sense of comedy, merging quintessential Canadiana with Maddin's skewed version of Winnipeg, whether that be snowy landscapes as a metaphor for naked laps or romantic winter walks punctuated by frozen horse heads (below). It's a documentary as only Maddin could envision, and it offers yet another wintry view of Winnipeg.
'The Tracey Fragments'
Sometimes snow's impact is visual and metaphorical, but for Ellen Page in 'The Tracey Fragments,' it's an insidious and infuriating piece of existence. She hates snow and its fleeting nature -- not half as reliable and untouchable as the stars in the sky. She recognizes its white danger as she desperately searches for her young brother: "Snow has this effect on people. It's hypnotic. It's the white. Too much whiteness, OK?"
Warning: Strong language.
If there hasn't already been too much whiteness for you, hit the comments and share your favorite wintry Canadian tale.