In the wake of The Artist, another neo-silent epic from Europe, this time a bold retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Comparisons to The Artist are probably inevitable. Like Michel Hazanavicius’ Academy Award-winner, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves is a neo-silent film, dispensing with sound, colour and widescreen framing in order to ape a mishmash of styles that are not merely confined to pre-1927 cinema. In the case of Berger’s film, the points of reference are multiple, ranging from the French impressionists from whom the director draws on a dizzying program of feverish montage, dissolves and odd angles for his most dramatic moments, to the works of countryman and contemporary Pedro Almodóvar, whose offbeat worldview seems like a guiding spirit hovering over proceedings.
And then there’s the official source, the old Brothers Grimm via Disney tale of Snow White, the Spanish name for whom provides the film with its title and its lead character with her nickname. Berger’s take on this classic material transplants the story to ’20s Spain, where, after her father becomes paralysed in a bullfighting accident, the young Carmen (Macarena García) falls under the cruel care of her wicked stepmother, Encarna (Maribel Verdú), trapped in a cavernous house whose steep shadows and hard angles seem designed to recall classic German Expressionist texts. As she grows up, Carmen escapes the clutches of her overbearing would-be matriarch and, following in her father’s footsteps, becomes a star bullfighter, operating out of a matador troupe run by, yes, a gaggle of dwarves (six, not seven, in this case). Eventually Encarna tracks her down and presents Blancanieves with her legendary stealth weapon: the poison apple.
If The Artist made too great a fetish of its somewhat flippant lesson in film history, then Blancanieves is not necessarily immune from the same tendency. This aping reaches its climax in scenes such as the death of Carmen’s grandmother, which builds up to an aesthetic as heightened in pitch as any similarly fast-cut moment in, for example, Dimitri Kirsanoff’s 1926 classic Ménilmontant. But, film historical fun aside, Berger succeeds in spinning a reasonably compelling tale of misery and temporary respite, using pastiche as a way of interjecting a spicy grotesquerie to beef up proceedings.
Of course, there’s no reason why the experiment of making popular entertainment out of a reconstituted silent film mode need necessarily be repeated, presumably exhausted as it was by Hazanavicius’ film. (And this is setting aside, of course, helmers of less commercial projects like Guy Maddin, who use silent cinema as a springboard for far more imaginative undertakings). But, while we can hope for a moratorium on such projects in the future — and, in all likelihood, this concept is little more than the latest flavour of the month — it’s worth acknowledging that Berger at least uses the unique possibilities inherent in his experiment to strong expressive effect.
Whether isolating his young protagonist in her chamber of desolation or indulging in the jubilation of a dance in a public square, film history here isn’t just something for Berger to nod knowingly at, but, at the very least, a tool to be used in achieving lightly pleasurable dramatic effects in the context of a contemporary narrative feature.
The last thing we need is another neo-silent.
Pablo Berger uses every trick in his bag to ensure a good time at the movies.
Blancanieves is a makeweight project, but its modest pleasures linger in the mind.