A silent film-style retelling of Snow White set in 1920s Spain (with bullfighting!)
Pablo Berger's Blancanieves will inevitably draw comparisons to Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist since both are silent films. (Blancanieves was Spain's official Oscar entry last year, and I suspect the silent film form was part of what kept it out of the final Best Foreign Language pool.) While I can understand the impulse to compare the two, the films are so different in their approach. The Artist is an homage to traditional silent filmmaking and the conventions of those plots. Blancanieves, on the other hand, is a chimera: a retelling of Snow White as a silent period film made with contemporary camerawork and editing.
As I watched Blancanieves, I was captivated by its formal choices and its deft use of the soundtrack. It's more than just shtick. By mixing the filmmaking form of one era with modern sensibilities and by retelling a Brothers Grimm story in 1920s Spain, the film is unmoored from any fixed point in history. It's how Berger achieves the magical sense of timelessness found in fairy tales -- something like "Once upon a time."
With any retelling of a fairy tale, part of the fun is knowing the original tale, spotting the differences in it, and finding out how these differences affect the retelling. Immediately in Blancanieves we are struck by the sense of variation. There's the look of 1920s Spain, which has an odd timelessness to it since many of the clothes and design elements don't seem out of style. There's also the brutal romanticism of bullfighting. Viewed as an outsider to Spanish culture, I think bullfighting also adds to the timelessness of Blancanieves. It's something elegant and macho and bloody, but also oddly chivalric. Think dragonslaying but as a spectator sport; something that could only be lauded in a time when there were only nascent animal rights movements around.
The opening of the film shows the tragic circumstances surrounding the birth of Carmen, the title character, played as a child by Sofía Oria and as a young woman by Macarena García. Her father was the celebrated bullfighter Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and her mother the beloved singer Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta). Both of them prevail in her blood. In an early scene, young Carmen is being fit for a dress and she begins to dance. There's no gramophone nearby playing a record. The music is entirely on the movie's soundtrack and in Carmen's head. It's one of many moments in the movie where music signifies recognition and memory, and each separate moment has a power to it.
I come back to the silent film form again and think that another reason for the choice is that working within the constraints of a silent film allows skilled filmmakers to engage in acts of enchantment and bewilderment. Berger's using these sound and music cues to tap into character's heads while propelling the narrative forward, and he's also showing a kind of magic that's exclusive to a movie without sound. Suddenly all sound and all absence of sound have meaning, and so do the origins of these sounds and absences. It's almost like a little bit of sleight of hand that reminded me of how movies can still captivate through relatively simple means.
Initially raised by her grandmother, Carmen eventually winds up living in her father's house, which has been taken over by her wicked stepmother Encarna (Maribel Verdú of Y Tu Mamá También and Pan's Labyrinth). Verdú plays the role with relish and elan, wandering through each scene like she's part evil queen and part silent film siren. Child endangerment and abuse is par for the course in Grimm, but here the labor seems downright Dickensian at times. Carmen's hair is cropped to look boyish, her pet rooster is banished to the chicken coop, and she's forced to live in a dank coal cellar. Encarna forbids Carmen from going to the second floor of the house, which is where her father (whom she's never met) might be kept.
Another bit of Berger's directorial sleight of hand precedes Carmen's arrival at her father's house: the simple act of dying a white dress black. It's another one of those things that I think fits in the silent film form, though it's done with a lot of modern sophistication. Not only is it a great image, but it's a beautiful expedient that conveys a somber event, the passage of time, and a change in the film's mood. The same goes for Carmen's transition into adulthood, which is a great blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment. (There's a less artful transition involving the falling pages of a calendar, but it's less an act of sleight of hand and more a wink to silent film conventions.)
But Berger's able to use his filmmaking technique to very fragile, human, heartbreaking ends as well. Without saying too much about a certain scene in Carmen's father's house, there's a moment that involves music as memory and the sudden appearance of a character who merely walks into the frame of an extended shot and walks out. It's such a haunting second or two, and seeing the performance play out after this brief reappearance tempers the rest of the scene with a kind of solemnity -- there's happiness, but it's one that makes a character long for a happiness that can never return. So many of the scenes in the house of Encarna are about the joys and sadnesses people are forced to endure. It's a reminder that while this is a retelling of a fairy tale, there's a melancholy note to much of it.
Blancanieves unfolds with a sense of wonder and beauty. The cycles of sound and vision as externalized memory continue throughout, and there's even a magnification of familiar images when they recur. A small bell tinkling in one scene becomes larger bells tolling toward the end, an impossibly gorgeous music cue from one moment will return when it's most needed for a character (and for a scene to have the most impact). It makes sense that these magnifications occur as Carmen grows into a young woman, and it also makes strange sense that there's a cycle of history that needs to be repeated and overcome. What's more apt for a fairy tale than the story of child dealing with the monster that destroyed her parents?
But with any fairy tale retelling, it's not just the variations that get me. It's the inevitability of it all. I know what's coming, so what happens when we get there? There will be dwarves, the showdown with the wicked stepmother, and the presence of the dreaded poisoned apple. And what then? Because while I know what's coming, this is a riff on the tale I know, not the tale retold the same way, and part of the fun of any retelling is to be surprised when the surprises come, and to be moved by these surprises when you realize that they were also inevitable.
It's the eagerness of knowing and the dazzling mystery of not knowing all in one, like being a child at a magic show watching a new take on a familiar trick. That may be the most apt analogy I can think of for what Berger made me feel during Blancanieves.