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It seems that we are living in a time where classic fairytales have become fodder for Hollywood mass-marketing strategies, where the tales of the Brothers Grimm have become grim exercises in salesmanship as Hollywood chews up and spits out a revised fairytale nearly every week, not because the movie industry is wedded to the gothic and beautifully grotesque romance of the original fairytales, but because Hollywood keeps running out of fresh ideas and recycling old material in attempts to sell millions of tickets and tie-in merchandise. So The Industry has bombarded the multiplex with every possible revised fairytale done up in CGI and 3D and packaged to sell millions of tickets and McToys. In the past year, we’ve seen Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood, and two versions of Snow White.
In between all this fairytale brouhaha, a small and exquisitely beautiful film from Spain slipped onto the screen in art houses. Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves (2012) is also an adaptation of the Grimm Brothers’ Snow White, but it couldn’t be more different than the candy-coated bombastic features coming out of Hollywood. A silent film set in 1920s Spain, Blancanieves is shot on black and white stock and harkens back to a cinema that luxuriated in extracting emotion and beauty from acting, make-up, costumes and photography rather than high-tech slight-of-hand special effects. Blancanieves is surreal, fantastical, grotesque, romantic, beautiful and heartbreakingly tragic. It is full of tragedy and beauty, camp and sincerity, horror and innocence.
In other words, it is just like the original Grimm’s fairytales and like the early cinema it evokes. It takes us back in time, but it also leads us to a place that is timeless. Berger’s film is not wrapped in plastic, but in cinematic nostalgia. We are reminded of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (released in 1946 yet evoking the atmosphere of silent films) as well as Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932, one of the first “talkie” movies about mythical outcasts in a carnival setting). In fact, Berger’s film on many levels shows the fairytale as a world of freaks. It’s not the Disneyfied world of princesses saved by princes, but a surreal, offbeat, grotesque world where people feed on spectacle, on greed, on perversity and on each other. But it is also stunningly beautiful and tender. The exaggerated acting, heavy make-up, richly textured costuming, melodrama and tragedy definitely harken back to the era of silent films, but the film is more than a mere artifact of cinematic nostalgia.
For the record, Berger shot the film eight years ago, long before last year’s silent movie hit The Artist went into production and won the Oscar for Best Picture. It took Berger nearly a decade to get the film made and released even though all the film had been shot years before the endless remakes and revisions of Snow White and other fairytales began to splatter the multiplex. So let it be clear that Berger’s film is not just another entry into the latest trend of revisionist fairytales, and he’s not ripping off recent industry successes (and failures). He has created something entirely different that is like nothing else you’ve ever seen and like the things that you have seen but no longer exist.
Berger’s film may be called Snow White, but this tale is quite different than other movie versions. Set in Spain amongst bullfighters and flamenco dancers, it is the story of a young girl Carmen who grows up to be a bullfighter. She is the daughter of Spain’s most famous bullfighter Antonio Villalta and favored flamenco dancer Carmen de Triana. In other words, “Snow White” is born of the blood of Spanish spectacle and entertainment, and the film is largely about spectacle. The film begins with a set of red curtains that open onto a movie screen, placing us immediately in the position of the audience and making us hyper aware that we are the spectators watching a movie.
The film then lures us in with its beautiful photography and its heightened emotions. It is an absolutely beautiful object to behold. The photography is an exercise in perfection. Every single frame is luxuriously composed, and the film seduces us with its beauty. There is no dialogue. Dialogue is provided in very limited print. We fill in the emotions and the narrative by what is given to us through the acting and the meticulously composed frames. Through this process, we become active participants in the film, and it is impossible to resist its luxurious nostalgia – the spectacle, horror, camp, and romantic tragedy. We are thrown into a fantasy world that has bullfighting and flamenco dancing, evil nurses and cross-dressing dwarves, poison apples and a crippled father, bulls named Lucifer and Satan, Catholicism and mysticism. And in the middle is the story of Carmen who becomes Snow White (Blancanieves) the Bullfighter.
Carmen’s mother dies in childbirth after her father is gored by a bull named Lucifer and left crippled. His nurse — the diabolical, sexually perverse, greedy, materialistic, resentful, jealous and utterly evil Encarna — marries Carmen’s father for his money. They send Carmen off to live with her grandmother who eventually (of course) dies, and Carmen finds herself in the sprawling mansion of her absent father and her evil stepmother.
Encarna is not your typical evil stepmother. She unleashes all the underlying nightmarish psychosexual content that underscores so many of the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales. Sure, she chops off Carmen’s hair, shoves her in a filthy basement for a bedroom and puts her to work shoveling coal and doing the dirty work on the estate. But Encarna isn’t just being cruel to Carmen because she’s jealous. She has no magic mirror on the wall that she uses to reinforce her beauty. Encarna is cruel simply because she likes being cruel. She is fueled by narcissism and greed, for sure, but she’s also driven by her particular form of sexual perversion. In between berating and tormenting Carmen’s father, Encarna likes to play dominatrix. She puts her chauffeur on a leash, dons stilettos, and wields whips and riding crops performing acts of sexual domination. Encarna gets off on being cruel just as much as she gets off on money. Maribel Verdú plays Encarna with a villainous triumph even as she meets her eventual gory (and much deserved) end. Verdú embodies the role with pure malice, avarice and corrupted sexuality.
Carmen on the other hand is an image of innocence and beauty. The young Carmencita (“little Carmen”) is pure as snow and goes wide-eyed through the world with her sidekick rooster Pepe by her side. Her face registers a full range of emotion from heartbreak to joy, from injustice to love. Her big eyes look out from under her chopped hair, and she is an undeniable beauty. She is a girl to be loved, cherished and cared for. We cry out against the violations that Encarna commits against her, and we revel in her joyful reunion with her father. The young Carmencita lures us deep into investing ourselves in her character. We want her to triumph. This is a fairytale world where good and evil are clearly drawn, and we want good to reign.
And the grown Carmen (no longer “little”) does seem to rise like a brand new Snow White ready to take charge of her character. After Encarna kills off the father, Carmen takes up bullfighting with a band of bullfighting dwarves. The dwarves are an oddball cast of characters. They are not Dopey and Grumpy, but rather love-struck, cross-dressed, and jealous (to name three). At first Carmen joins the band of dwarves as a side act (The Seven Dwarves and Snow White). But when they realize what an attraction a female bullfighter is, the act becomes Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. In other words, Blancanieves dwarves the men when she takes on bulls in a man’s sport.
Blancanieves’ short hair gives her a boyish androgynous look, but she is undeniably a girl. She is bursting with femininity while playing a man’s game. When Carmen takes on the role of bullfighter, the film suggests that it may be going do down the path of a feminist revision fairytale. There is no prince to save the day as Snow White goes head-to-head with big black bulls.
But Blancanieves is not a revisionist feminist fairytale, and there is no saving Snow White. Pablo Berger builds her character so that we invest ourselves entirely in her victory and revel in her triumph, but then he drops the bottom out from under her (like a trap door in a “trick sideshow”), and Blancanieves ends up being just what she has always been – a romantic and tragic spectacle.
Because the movie operates in the operatic poetry of silent films, all the symbols are there for Carmen’s triumph and her demise. She stands in the middle of the same arena in which her father was gored by a bull, and she is victorious. She redeems her father by taking on the big bad bull and dominating him in the ring to the excitement of the masses. Everyone cheers for her. The crowd in the coliseum, the audience in the movie theater, and the dwarves all revel in her victory. But then that dastardly Encarna shows up with the poison apple. Just when we think Berger is going to turn the tables and let Snow White go free, she bites into the toxic fruit and drops into a perpetual coma.
The next time we see our heroine, she is trapped in a glass box at a seedy carnival freak show. Her love-struck dwarf tends to her body as if he is caring for the corpse of a saint. Our heroine who we have invested our hearts and souls in ends up as a freak in a carnival where strangers pay to quarters to kiss her. She is jerry-rigged to pop to life by gizmos and gadgets operated by the dwarf. But it is all an illusion. There is no life left in our heroine. She is frozen in the role of spectacle, and the movie ends with her shedding a silent tear. The tear leaks slowly out of her eye as she lies paralyzed and aware of her own tragic fate and knows that she’s trapped and can’t do anything about it.
Blancanieves is trapped in her own story and in the body of Snow White. Instead of liberation, all we get is spectacle. Berger’s ending seems as cruel an act as the evil stepmother cooking up Carmen’s beloved chicken Pepe and feeding it to the child. He makes us cheer for her, feel her victory, triumph with her, and then he takes it all back and leaves our heroine immobilized and locked in a box. It’s like Berger prepares this beautiful luscious meal for us, has us bite into it with relish, and then tells us that it is poison. But, perhaps that’s what makes it so tasty, because we feel tragedy much more powerfully than we feel victory.
Audiences are seduced by horror as much as romance, and in beautifully gothic romantic form, Berger plays both sides. The film has many close-ups of the hungry crowd at the coliseum. They cheer for the bullfighter when he or she triumphs, but then they feed off the horror and gore when things go wrong. The masses are hungry for the spectacle of disaster even as they cheer for a hero. They can’t make up their mind. Do they want victory or blood? Clearly they want both, and Berger gives them (and us) both.
Perhaps this beautiful film is an ode to a time when cinema provided escape. Maybe it is a critique of how contemporary film has largely been reduced to violent spectacle. Or maybe it is reminding us that people have always loved violent spectacle, especially when it is packaged so beautifully. Certainly Romans feeding men to lions and the violent tradition of bullfighting existed long before Hollywood movies. Maybe Blancanieves is just reminding us that people have always liked to mix romance with tragedy, just like in the original Grimm fairytales.
Also, I should note that there is no shortage of the grotesque and the macabre which holds true to the vision of the Grimm Brothers as well as to the melodrama and camp of silent film. The movie has plenty of absurdity to complement its gorgeous aesthetics. On the one hand we have the textural beauty of the bullfighting and flamenco costumes combined with the seductive use of black and white film. On the other, we have moments of utter absurdity, such as a scene when characters, including Carmen, pose for photographs with the corpse of Snow White’s dead father. The movie maintains the macabre sexuality and dark undercurrent of the original Grimm stories which are laden with sexual perversion and cruelty combined with beauty, dark humor, melodrama, adventure and fantasy. Blancanieves, a beautiful textural film, contains all these things which make it true to the “texture” of the original story.
Maybe by not allowing Snow White to be liberated and keeping her in that box trapped inside her story, Berger is saying it’s time to toss out candy coated reality. Maybe horror is the real beauty, and happy endings are perversions. Whatever Berger’s intentions were, the end product is stunningly beautiful even if tragic. I was completely enchanted by this magical film even as it led me to a place of disenchantment.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.