Fun fact about me: I was due on the first day of winter, so my dad considered naming me Snow White. No, really. Another fun fact about me: I watched The Artist in theaters. And I loved it.
I’ve been a fan of fairy tales and fairy tale retellings since Gail Carson Levine’s Princess Tales, but seriously, can we get more neo-silent movies? Cuz between The Artist and BLANCANIEVES, an absolutely enchanting 2011 silent retelling of Snow White, we’re 2-for-2 on stunning, artistic, astonishing homages to the silent film era. Which are also gorgeous and wonderful films in their own right.
Macarena Garcia stars as Carmen, the daughter of a celebrated matador who is left wheelchair-bound when his last performance goes horribly awry. Maribel Verdu (Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Mercedes, in a very different fairy tale-inspired role!) is Encarna, the sexy and sadistic stepmother hell-bent on terrorizing the young girl. As Blancanieves reimagines the classic Brothers Grimm tale in 1920s Spain, there’s no “magic” in the fairy tale sense. However, there is flamenco, opera, and a traveling troupe of circus performers known as the “Bullfighting Dwarves”, which is pretty damned close.
Norma Desmond famously declares of the silent film era that “we had faces then”. As tomboyish ingenue Carmen, Macarena Garcia has a sweet but unconventional charm as the waifish, gamine heroine, who is a duskier beauty than the “fairest of them all” of German storybooks. With her pixie haircut and features that blend sensuousness and androgyny, Garcia has a screen presence that stands apart even from the traditionally Spanish beauty of her mother and grandmother (an elegant and moving Angela Molina). Young Carmen grows up in a world of country farmhouses, flamenco dances, and Catholic iconography. The wicked stepmother, by contrast, channels the icy, razor-cheekboned glamour of silver screen vixens, with her severe black bob cut and fantastically subtext-loaded (and just plain fantastic) wardrobe. Where Carmen wears gorgeous flower crowns, lacy confirmation dresses in virginal white, and homespun dresses, Encarna shifts from austere nurse’s uniforms and schoolmistress dresses to vampy Old Hollywood dresses and black mourning dresses. As for our prince, in a sweet departure from the original tale, Carmen fall in love with one of the dwarves!
Whereas The Artist was very much an ode to Classic Hollywood, director Pablo Berger declared Blancanieves a “love letter to European silent cinema.” But the influences are far-reaching. When Carmen goes to live with her stepmother as a child, she finds herself in a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel by way of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Though there’s minimal sex and violence onscreen, in keeping with the tradition of both Grimm fairy tales and silent films, there are some very dark undertones. Two of the film’s most ghoulish scenes–one that’s a very clear nod to Bette Davis, another that makes use of those horrifying Victorian “mourning portraits” that were the scariest goddamn thing about The Others–are played for macabre laughs, which makes them even more unsettling. There are touches of deviant sexuality as well. In addition to gleefully neglecting her paralyzed husband, Encarna is unfaithful, wearing a corset and stilettos to her mustachioed paramour-slash-underling; her lover later stands in for the “Huntsman” role, but instead of sparing Carmen, he attempts to rape her. And then there’s the ending, which moves from triumph to gothic melodrama to a truly ghastly denouement.
This is just an incredibly gorgeous, compelling, poetic film. The black-and-white cinematography is stunning, as are the updated fairy tale elements and the nods to old-school cinema. Ultimately, what works so well about Blancanieves is that it doesn’t just function as an homage. Instead, it’s an alive, breathing piece of cinema in its own right.