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Non-Review Review: Blancanieves

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

Blancanieves feels like either a film that has its finger firmly on the pop culture zeitgeist, or the victim of the worst timing. It appears less than a year after The Artist won the Best Picture Oscar, becoming a massive critical and popular success. Given the relative dearth of high-profile silent black-and-white films, Blancanieves is somewhat trapped within that shadow. More than that, though, it emerges following a year that demonstrated popular culture’s fixation on the Snow White story. 2012 saw the release of both Mirror Mirror and Snow White & The Huntsman, both reimaginings of the classic tale. Blancanieves is, for its own part, an adaptation of the fairy tale, and it seems like the story was weighing on the popular imagination.

In any other context, Blancanieves would seem like a breath of fresh air. An affectionate homage to the classic era silent cinema, retelling the Snow White story in an unfamiliar setting, there’s a lot to recommend it. Indeed, Blancanieves is easily the best Snow White adaptation of the past year. Unfortunately, it suffers because it’s not quite as charming, witty and well-constructed as The Artist.

Dark materials...

Dark materials…

In many ways, Blancanieves seems like a more straight-up homage to silent cinema than The Artist. It is, for example, a lot less tied up in clever meta-fictional playfulness. While there is the occasional moment where Blancanieves plays with the notion of silent cinema, leaning on the fourth wall ever so slightly, it isn’t quite as cheeky as The Artist. Of course, The Artist was a film about cinema, and so it was relatively easy to indulge those winks and nods at the audience as it played with the audience. There’s nothing here quite as witty as opening a film with your silent lead declaring “I won’t talk!”, but that might not be a bad thing.

Blancanieves is a lot more straight-forward, and – as a result – it feels more like an attempt to do a relatively faithful homage to a classic cinematic genre. I’m not entirely convinced, but you could argue that Blancanieves‘ more direct approach doesn’t distract from the genre with all that clever winking and nodding. This is a silent movie and – as such – it’s very direct and candid about that fact. It’s not too difficult to imagine something like (barring an element or two) turning up in some vault somewhere, a lost film from the twenties or thirties. In contrast, The Artist could not – despite its setting – be mistaken from a film from that era.

Everybody say... re, on second thought, everybody don't say cheese!

Everybody say… re, on second thought, everybody don’t say cheese!

It feels a little unfair to constantly return to that comparison. After all, Blancanieves evolved entirely separately from The Artist. It is just that The Artist arrived in cinema first, and so it becomes the focal point of this discussion. The Artist wasn’t the only silent film produced in the last number of decades – depending on your tastes, films like Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie or  Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha or even The Call of Cthulhu. However, it was the most popular in recent times and it stemmed from the same desires as Blacanieves, so it is the logical point of comparison.

It’s tempting to suggest that, had Blancanieves appeared first, the comparisons might have been reversed, to argue that part of the muted reaction to the film is down to a simple lack of novelty. However, that doesn’t seem entirely fair. Blancanieves is a fascinating and beautifully constructed film, but it lacks the cleverness of The Artist. It isn’t as sharp or as subversive. It feels like it doesn’t so much set out to be a truly memorable piece of cinema in its own right, but exists merely as a love-letter to the classic era of silent films. It’s missing that sort of energy and enthusiasm that made The Artist so compelling.

No bull.

No bull.

That’s not to suggest that Blancanieves is a bad film, on its own merits. Kiko de la Rica’s black-and-white cinematography is absolutely stunning. In fact, the film’s European setting lends itself to black-and-white perfectly, creating the impression of a setting that is much older than it actually is. The film is explicitly set in the second decade of the twentieth century, but it feels older. Part of that is undoubtedly the choice of a fairy tale as source material, but the beautiful black-and-white depiction of Spain also makes the setting seem that much more antiquated and classical.

Alfonso de Villalonga’s score is also a highlight, creating a wonderful aural landscape that does an excellent job filling part of the void left by the absence of dialogue. de Villalonga carries the film’s mood so well that it’s easy to forget that none of the characters can speak, and he provides a delightful atmosphere that is an essential ingredient of Pablo Berger’s affectionate homage.

Still sharp, after all these years...

Still sharp, after all these years…

Maribel Verdú also makes a fairly compelling evil stepmother, and she anchors the film. Verdú turns in an absolutely superb silent movie performance, full of overstated and overdramatic gestures, the kind of acting performance that would seem hammy or overwrought in any other context, but seems pitched perfectly for a film like this. Robbed of her voice, Verdú compensates remarkably well. Indeed, the fun she seems to he having helps to energise the film that occasionally feels just a little bit too long or too indulgent in places.

On the other hand, the film’s editing feels a little too choppy in places. The quick cuts and use of montage are really the only parts of the film (aside from a late fireworks display) that feels distinctly modern – the only real aspects of the production that give away the fact it was produced in 2012. The film cuts and jumps around too rapidly at certain points, which feels out of character for a film like this.

Her evil stepmother will continue to hound her.

Her evil stepmother will continue to hound her.

However, the biggest problem with Blancanieves isn’t with any of the elements present. Berger does a fantastic job creating a stunning piece of silent cinema. The problem is what the film lacks, the intangible absence. There’s very little zest or energy to Blancanieves, and there are times when it seems like all the effort being put into the film serves no purpose beyond acknowledging the beauty of black-and-white cinema. Despite Verdú’s performance, none of the characters seem tangible or real. They feel like pieces on the chessboard, moved in particular directions along a pre-defined arc so the movie can continue.

It’s not that Blancanieves is predictable or anything as trite like that. After all, you’d have a bigger problem if a Snow White adaptation was entirely new or original. The problem is that the pieces within the narrative all feel like they don’t exist beyond their plot function, or beyond their ability to move the film to the next scene, closer to the ending, allowing the homage to continue. To return to a comparison that is feeling quiet old, despite all the cleverness of The Artist, George Valentin and Peppy Miller (and even Uggy the Dog) felt more like real characters than anybody in Blancanieves.

Keep trouping on...

Keep trouping on…

It’s a problem, but it doesn’t detract from the sheer beauty of Blancanieves, which remains a visually sumptuous piece of film-making. However, it stops the film from becoming a modern classic, and firmly places it in the shadow of another recent homage that managed to be stunningly beautiful and engaging on its own terms.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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