There’s been a sense of desperation about Hollywood’s hunt for new franchises in the last couple of years, so perhaps it was inevitable that they’d settle for remaking Grimm’s fairy tales. We’ve had takes on Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel & Gretel and Red Ricing Hood, none of which have really worked because of their ill-chosen styles; ultraviolence, teenage girlpower or knowing camp. It’s as if no-one has been prepared to trust the source material, or run entirely free with it.
‘Blancanieves’ divided festival critics earlier this year, a few feeling that ‘The Artist’ had already covered its ground, as if there could only ever be one modern silent film. Others have raved about it. As far as I can see, this new version of Snow White owes nothing to ‘The Artist’ at all. Rather, it’s far closer to Tod Browning’s ‘Freaks’ than anything else. The lensing is modern, not period-pastiche, and the tone is very dark.
We’re in 1920′s Seville, where a daughter is born to a flamenco singer, the wife of a legendary matador. The girl’s mother dies in labour and her father is left paralysed by a near-fatal goring, so Snow White is locked away by her wicked stepmother, who takes control of the estate. After the chauffeur leaves her for dead in the woods, she’s rescued by a bullfighting circus troupe and is invited to join them in male guise, becoming famous in the process. In doing so, she sends an unbreakable contract with a Mephistophelean agent.
The troupe comprise six dwarves (one female), and the Queen’s mirror becomes an interiors magazine for which she poses, only to be knocked from the top page by her own stepdaughter. As the circus bullfighters arrive in town, the scene is set for a bitter showdown involving a switched bull and a poisoned apple…
With luminous deep-field monochrome photography, a flamenco-influenced score and the dazzlingly beautiful Maribel Verdu from ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, the fable finds a timeless tone that honours both the classic story and a revisionist sensibility. The stepmother is a materialistic dominatrix, the father is not weak but marooned in a wheelchair, and Snow White’s only friend is the cockerel that’s cruelly fed to her. Director Pablo Berger uses sound and visuals – especially some elegant film-history nods to superimposition and fast-cutting technique – to create the mood and tell the story where, really, no words are needed.
In fact there’s nothing arch or post-modern about the storytelling at all, and the style seems to perfectly match the subject. However, there’s a bleaker sensibility at work here than in ‘The Artist’, from Snow White’s painful adolescent suffering to an unexpectedly bittersweet ending which suggests that princes don’t always come along in obvious forms.