After ten years of working on Blancanieves, writer-director Pablo Berger must have had mixed feelings about the appearance of The Artist last year. That film’s runaway success was undeniably a useful ice-breaker, however, for they are similar beasts, modern silent films made (largely) according to the conventions and constraints of the 1920s. Berger even gives Uggie a run for his money, with a perky rooster named Pepe.
Where The Artist’s use of this form is intimately tied to its content, however, Blancanieves uses the old-fashioned more simply to charm, and to help transport us to the era, for a tale that has nothing to do with cinema, or with sound. We are in 1920s Seville, for a retelling of the Snow White story. Carmencita is the daughter of a renowned bull-fighter. She has a cruel stepmother. Left for dead in the forest, she is taken in by a band of six “enanitos toreros”, a ramshackle traveling band of dwarves, with whom she discovers her own talent for bullfighting. Engaged to perform a show at Seville’s grand arena, she once again encounters her stepmother, and the poisoned apple makes its appearance.
The story is so well-known that the appeal must be in its telling, and Berger is superficially successful. His strongest assets are the superb, shadow-daubed photography of Kiko de la Rica, lovely, lavish production design, clothes and jewelry, and the face of Maribel Verdú (Pan’s Labyrinth, Y tu mama tambien), who has a fine old time as the evil stepmother, her undeniable beauty gradually transformed into a cartoonish death’s head.
The vigorous score by Alfonso de Villalonga does most of the emotional heavy-lifting and is only occasionally over-bearing; elsewhere it is a lovely mixture of flamenco guitar, hand-clapping, and strings, strikingly augmented with what sounds very like a theremin. Berger and editor Franco go several times for some rapid and effective montage, in time to the music, and elsewhere go so far as to synch sound to image, first as a record plays, and later with fireworks. This is an issue in modern silent cinema throwbacks – to synch or not to synch? The convergence of sound and image tends to break the time-travel spell, since few scores for silent films remain with their original sheet music extant, many had none in the first place, and the convention has always largely been to fit the music to the film; the spell is broken when we feel that the image has been cut to the music.
That is not much of a complaint. The sequences in question work nicely, even if the slightly disconcerting effect has no function in the film’s overall scheme (as opposed, say, to in Hsiao-hsien Hou’s Three Times (2005)). Other stylistic flourishes include fun with the iris and repeated circles, from the grand plaza de toros, to the fateful apple, but these are mere echoes rather than metaphorical underpinning. Standards for the use of circles as visual symbols, in silent films or otherwise, were admittedly set high by Abel Gance’s La roué (1923), but Berger’s project has no aspirations to create a parallel, poetic meaning to its narrative. The form as a whole functions as high-class window-dressing.
The poetical and emotional elements embedded in the original fairytale – character, motivation, and magic – are further streamlined by alterations Berger has made to the story. Magic is out – there’s no mirror, and so shorn of the specific jealousy of vanity, the stepmother becomes even more of a caricature than Disney’s version (the film successfully runs with this, however, having Verdú fulsomely dominate her chauffeur with corset, top hat and riding crop). The decision to remove the element of magic is understandable; less so other changes. A certain amount of humanity is lost by having the chauffeur leave Blancanieves for dead, rather than let her go free in the forest; and the stepmother here does not bother to disguise herself, but brazenly hands the recently memory-recovered Blancanieves her apple, which is nonetheless received with not a jot of recognition.
There are also, for some reason, only six dwarves. It’s a distracting irony, even if non-verbal, when one of them recognizes this discrepancy in the large ‘7’ painted on their wagon – a film-maker’s eye-wink, and another spell-breaker, but less so than when the dwarves decide to name their new friend Blancanieves, “like in the story”. This irony is merely flippant, and allowing the characters to know the story that they are in fatally undermines its integrity, especially when that iconic apple is brought out (they’ve conveniently forgotten that part of the tale).
Only a couple such moments break the spell, and for the most part Berger conjures the sort of archetypal charm one hopes for in a fairy tale. Sofia Oria and Macarena García are both appealing as Carmens young and grown respectively (even if García is little more than a pair of wide eyes and pretty page boy haircut). The dwarves are an entertaining bunch, although the subplot of resentment Berger adds is no more than a device to justify one particular peril later on, and is otherwise unnecessary and undeveloped (likewise the illiterate Blancanieves signing herself into bondage with a machiavellian agent). Most damaging of all, however, he foregoes the classical closure of the fairytale form for an ending of melancholy ambiguity. One can accept the substitution of lovelorn dwarf for handsome prince, a stimulating disruption of the original story’s dynamics; some viewers will be repulsed rather than amused at the sight of lines of people kissing a corpse; many more will find the tacit endorsement of bull-fighting unforgivable. But to deny the audience any kind of ever after, happy or not, is a disappointment for all.