Polaris (2022)

Polaris screened at the Imagine Film Festival 2022

“Frozen world, year 2144,” reads text that opens Kirsten Carthew’s Polaris. “Few survived the freezing. A child raised by a bear brings hope from the stars.” Apart from another brief caption (“10 years earlier”) that appears shortly afterwards leading into a flashback told, storybook-style, in hand-drawn pictures, this introductory text presents in effect the only verbal exposition to appear in a film which otherwise tells its post-apocalyptic saga in purely visual terms.

After Sumi’s mother was murdered in a raid, a polar bear adopted the infant. We first see Sumi (future star Viva Lee) a decade later, now on the cusp of her teens and lying in the bare snow opposite her white-furred foster parent, like Little Bear and Great Bear. Much as their postures reflect the constellations in the sky above, suggesting their oneness with the universe, they are also guided in their travels by the bright star Polaris which forms part of Ursa Minor. As a foundling of nature, Sumi has only ever communicated with her foster bear, and with pine trees, all in preverbal grunts, howls and screams – and once separated from the bear, Sumi encounters a number of humans, some kind, most aggressive, who speak in invented (and unsubtitled) tongues, ensuring that the preadolescent girl’s alienation is shared by the viewer. 

If the very idea of a close symbiotic relationship between a vulnerable little girl and an apex predator seems absurd (which it is), then that is because Polaris reserves verisimilitude for its adult characters, while portraying Sumi in the mode of magical realism. Not only does Sumi converse with the trees, but they appear to answer back; when she claps her wrists together to Polaris above, a glowing aura appears about her hands to match the purple sheen of the Pole Star; and Sumi displays miraculous powers of healing that give new meaning to the expressions ‘eye for an eye’ and ‘heart to heart’. So Sumi is as much a fairytale figure of myth as a flesh-and-blood character, confounding the normative boundaries between the human and the bestial, the earthbound and the cosmic – and her destiny is to transcend to the celestial. 

Accordingly, while Sumi’s newfound friendships with a kindly old woman (Muriel Dutil) and with a gravely injured younger one (Charlene Francique), and her clashes with an array of vicious warriors, marauders and plunderers, might offer a snowy counterpart to the Mad Max films, Sumi is also an elusive, allegorical character whose light – and whose storied nature – serve to guide others through this darkest of ages. Her rites of passage are also mystery rites, leading to a conclusion which, though carefully prefigured in the imagery of the film’s opening, may inspire awe and a certain addlement in the viewer. For this stellar heroine finds the perfect place where global catastrophe meets catasterism

strap: Kirsten Carthew’s post-apocalyptic ice-age adventure mystery sees a young girl raised by a polar bear and elevated to the stars

© Anton Bitel