Allow me cut right to the chase with my thoughts on Blancanieves (2012, directed by Pablo Berger). Such was my delight in this movie that I saw it in the theater twice in the span of four days. I don't remember the last time I did that. This is a film that ran a needle-fine wire into the pleasure center of my brain and jolted it unmercifully for a hundred and four minutes. It's a film that plays like a lost Tod Browning film, rediscovered and restored by Pedro Almodovar. It's a film that's so intoxicating to my filmgoing sensibilities and appetites that I hardly know how to convey how much I loved it.
Nota bene: here be spoylers beyond the cut.
The story in Blancanieves is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (making it the third film from 2012 to retell that story. In this film's ideation of fairy tale, Snow White's father, Antonio Villalta, is a renowned matador in some unspecified Spain of the early Twentieth Century. At the beginning of the film, he is possessed of a beautiful wife, Carmen, who is about to give birth to their first child. She's in the stands as he swaggers to the center of the bullring and takes on bull after bull. Clearly, he is a master, but even a master can't predict everything and when a photographer startles a bull while Villalta's attention is elsewhere, it gores him. While he is in the hospital, Carmen goes into labor. The child is born, but the mother does not survive the experience. Meanwhile, Villalta has caught the eye of one of his nurses, Encarna, who gazes upon him with wicked and covetous eyes. The child is sent to live with her grandmother, while Villalta remarries. Carmencita wants to be a flamenco dancer, like her mother, but her dreams are cut short when her grandmother dies and she’s sent to live with her father and stepmother. All is not right with that household. Carmen is warned to stay off the second floor of the house, and Encarna cuts her long hair as a means of humiliating her. Eventually, she breaks the rules when following her pet rooster, Pepe. She discovers that her father is disconsolate, a prisoner in his own house and in his own body. Encarna has taken her chauffeur as a lover and dominates him with boot and crop. Carmencita continues to visit her father, and her father teaches her to be a matador. It ends badly, as Encarna, suspicious of Carmencita, cooks Pepe and feeds it to her as an object lesson. Carmencita grows up. When her father dies under mysterious circumstances, she asks to drive out into the woods to gather flowers for his funeral. Encarna orders her chauffeur to kill her on the errand, and he makes a game attempt. He believes her dead when he leaves her, but she’s not quite dead. She’s rescued by a traveling band of dwarfs, who perform as matadors and rodeo clowns. Carmencita cannot remember her name or her old life, so the dwarfs name her Blancanieves—Snow White—and take her in. When one of their shows goes awry, Blancanieves jumps into the ring and demonstrates formidable skill as a matador as she saves one of her new friends. Soon, she’s headlining their act, and is scouted by a sinister bullfight promoter. She’s invited to perform in the big ring in Seville, where she once again comes to the attention of Encarna. Encarna has a gift for her…
I haven't mentioned yet that this is a contemporary silent film, a la The Artist (though that film dabbles with sound for effect). A comparison with The Artist seems disingenuous, though, because that film is an homage that uses silent technique mostly as a kind of metacinema. It’s wholly dependent on the film literacy of the audience for its jokes to hit home. That’s not a criticism, really, but Blancanieves isn’t using the formal conventions of silent film toward the same purposes. It’s more a pastiche than homage. This is a film that takes full advantage of the language of silent film on its own terms, and in doing so, rediscovers the awesome dormant power of the silents. The touchstones for this film are Browning, as I’ve said, but also Gance and the Soviets (who provide the film with its rapid-fire editing of flashback images, sometimes distilled down to one or two frames per cut), Murnau, Paul Leni, and even Rudolph Valentino, whose performance in Blood and Sand is all over the bullfighting scenes in this film. Blancanieves doesn't use these points of reference as in-jokes, though. Rather, it uses them as grammar. The whole field of silent techniques are open to it, and it embraces them.
This is a film that is more reliant on visual symbols than on text, of course, and it deploys them with malice and purpose: The apple with the skull glowing within it, Carmencita’s communion dress dyed black, the black mantilla that Encarna appropriates from Carmen at the end of the film, the demonic bull (appropriately named Satan), the great Gothic mansion, Carmencita’s mannishly short hair. This is a film that understands how to communicate without words. The performances, too, draw on the silents. This is a film where a hundred years of film acting is thrown over and emotions that might be internalized with, say, the method, are externalized in order so an audience can read them. Maribel Verdu is particularly good at this, but she gets to play the villain and has license to chew the scenery. She has a good face for a silent villainess: vulpine, predatory. Macarena Garcia and Sofia Oria have the role of Blancanieves as an adult and child respectively. The film doesn’t use her beauty as a plot point, but Garcia would certainly take the prize as fairest of them all had the films gone there. Her eyes are huge and filled with cinematic light. The androgyny of her character combined with the way her eyes are often lit suggest Falconetti’s performance in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Sofia Oria, by contrast, has a broader range to play. She goes from happy childhood to Dickensian misery and has to show it. Her horror at what Encarna does to Pepe is entirely convincing. It doesn’t hurt that she’s another in a long line of Spanish child actors placed into similar narratives, a lineage tracing back through Ivana Baquero (who also costarred with Maribel Verdu) to Ana Torrent in the similarly strange, similarly lyrical Spirit of the Beehive. I don’t think either of the performances as Carmencita/Blancanieves would fly in a sound film, but I might be wrong. For a silent film, though, they’re perfect.
All of this contributes to a visual texture that is at once dreamlike and theatrical.
This is a film that’s in love with textures, both literally and figuratively. The first images it puts on the screen are brocade and embroidered details of a matador’s uniform. The act of dressing the matador at the outset of the film is positively erotic. That it’s dressing Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and not a female character is the first hint that this is not exactly a heteronormative film, but is rather one that sometimes subverts the male gaze at a bare minimum. The film goes on to challenge gender roles, as well when Carmencita grows up to encompass both of her parents’ occupations: both flamenco dancer and matador. When she’s dressed as a matador, she cuts a striking genderqueer figure on the sand of the bullring. In this context, a crossdressing dwarf hardly seems out of place, so the movie gives us one. Aberrant sexuality informs the depiction of Encarna, too. This film makes explicit what has only been hinted at in most of the other depictions of wicked stepmothers: Encarna is a natural dominatrix, and her hatred for Carmencita is less about beauty (there is no concern about who is the fairest of them all) so much as it’s about control and power. Encarna’s lust for control and power is bottomless. Carmencita represents a challenge to her hegemony. She expresses this sexually, taking it out on her chauffeur who she makes into her dog (literally at one point). With Villalta himself she hardly has to bother, given that the bull has left him a quadriplegic. There’s a strong undercurrent of castration anxiety in this film, between Villalta and the chauffeur, both unmanned by Encarna.
This is a fairly sophisticated revision of Los Hermanos Grimm. The familiarity of the Snow White story to film audiences weaned on Disney’s version works to the filmmakers’ advantage, because they change things in very surprising ways. The huntsman, for instance, goes through with the murder of Snow White (or thinks he does). There is no magic mirror. The evil queen isn’t the only villain of the piece (see also the sinister bullfight promoter, whose contract with Blancanieves has a whiff of brimstone about it). One of the dwarfs, jealous of Blancanieves, betrays her. Prince Charming has been conflated with one of the dwarfs. This last might be the film’s most subversive conceit…well, that and the way the film ends. In all, this is a film that’s both familiar and exotic. It hits expected story beats in unexpected ways. And the end is devastating. The final image pushes this film out of the realm of the Grimms and into the realm of Goya by way of Tod Browning’s grotesque, in which the world is a carnival, viewed through a glass, darkly. There is no “love’s first kiss” in this movie. Snow White finds her way into a glass coffin, sure, but she’s there for good, to be exploited, just as she was exploited in life. Oh, Prince Charming eventually gives her a kiss, but that kiss elicits no life from her, only one solitary tear. The last image of this film is a gut punch, because suddenly we’re not in a fairy tale at all, but are rather in a horror movie. This sequence is foreshadowed in the scenes after Villalta has died, when Encarna props him up in full matador drag and invites people to take pictures with his corpse. After all the gawkers have left, a disconsolate Carmen takes her own picture with her father. There's a commentary on fame in this sequence, and on the ghastly, carrion nature of the industries that feed it. There's also something haunting about the way Carmen tries to drape her father's arm over her shoulders. This is replayed at the end, when its her in her glass coffin and when it's Rafita, who originally found her in the stream, who clings to her lifeless body. It's a haunting image. It’s a dark and bittersweet aftertaste that lingers long after the credits roll.