Sunday, August 4, 2013

Fairy tale goes fashionably retro-formalist

Spanish writer/director Pablo Berger’s second feature transports the titular Brothers Grimm fairy tale—Blancanieves is a literal translation of Snow White—to a mythical 1920s Andalucia brimming with flamenco dancers, bullfighters and other such regional kitsch. In keeping with the period setting, Berger relays his vaguely feminist revision as a monochromatic silent film, replete with title cards and antiquated effects. I attended a number of film festivals over the course of the last year where the film was screening and noticed a consistently divided response: viewers seemed either charmed or irritated. I fell more into the latter camp—in part because of the film’s incessant camp.

To give credit to the complexity of both Berger’s motives and the film’s layered qualities, Blancanieves is a peculiar beast, at once an obvious labour of love—the film could hardly have been easy to finance—and a work shrewdly calibrated to adhere to current cinephile fashion, such as retro formalism—à la Tabu, The Artist and Guy Maddin’s entire career—and fairy tale re-visitation, evident in various other recent versions of Snow White. It is an ostensible love letter to some Spanish past but is shamelessly pitched to an international market, sticking closely as it does to the broadest possible cultural stereotypes. It felt to me both pandering and academic, which is a rare enough combination, I suppose. Perhaps it is too much the supposedly critic friendly film—the sort that brings out the unfriendly side of this critic.

Our heroine is one Carmen (Macarena García), daughter of a beloved toreador (Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho) and a flamenco dancer (Inma Cuesta). Mom dies in childbirth, dad gets paralyzed by a bull named Lucifer, and so along comes Encarna (Maribel Verdú, Y Tu Mamá También). Like Phyllis Nirdlinger in Double Indemnity, Encarna worms her way into the family via her role as a kindly nurse, but once she assumes the role of stepmother she proves plenty wicked. The most appealing, iconoclastic spin on the familiar renditions of Snow White is the way Berger imbues Carmen with more agency and grit. Gender restrictions be damned, this Snow White is following Dad’s slippered footsteps into the ring. She becomes a great bullfighter. What else? Oh, the dwarves. There are seven of them. I guess they’re kind of funny.

I frequently felt frustrated by Blancanieves’ simplistic emotional landscape and its insistence on slavishly appropriating silent era tics without bringing anything very fresh to the exercise (this is what I meant when I called it academic). My favourite scene by far was the final, somber one, tinged with tragedy and genuine mystery. Yet when I saw the film for the first time in Toronto, Berger immediately took the stage afterwards for a Q&A and rather smugly confessed that he deliberately chose an ambiguous finale because he figured that would make the film seem smarter. So if it seems like I’m picking on the film, let me say that it’s kind of asking to be picked on. If you’re willing to simply take pleasure in its handsomely photographed surfaces, you probably won’t feel as ornery. 

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