What hath The Artist wrought? With Blancanieves, a supremely crisp and hermetically sealed black-and-white silent production, writer-director Pablo Berger digs for emotional intensity in his gothic retelling of Snow White and only uncovers layers of gloss. Technically proficient, but more trapped than unleashed by its conceit, the film is a flamenco- and bullfighting-infused interpretation of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale set in 1920s Seville. Berger is committed to filtering the derivations of the classic narrative through the tradition of Spain’s culture, ingraining the proceedings with pride for its exceedingly Spanish milieu. And even though Blancanieves was in production at the time of The Artist’s release, both will be seen as appropriating a bygone medium and a recycled narrative to create a 21st-century genre—the more talented and subversive Guy Maddin be damned.
Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a great matador, and upon an attempt to conquer six bulls, with seemingly all of Seville, including his very-pregnant dancer wife looking on, he’s gored by the sixth and promptly rushed to the hospital. While there, his wife simultaneously goes into labor, giving birth to Carmencita and passing away in the process. The child is raised by her über-benevolent grandmother, but on the day of Carmencita’s communion, her grandmother suffers a heart attack amid a swirling communal dance routine. Now orphaned and having never met her grief-stricken and now-remarried father, Carmencita is taken in as a child servant and demeaned to perform the toughest jobs on the property at a grand house, which is, unbeknownst to her, the house of her birth father. Carmencita is banned from entering the second floor, where her wheelchair-bound father resides and gold-digger stepmother, Encarna (Maribel Verdú), who was her father’s nurse in the hospital and is now a philandering trophy wife, spends a majority of the day trying on ostentatious attire (mostly absurdly designed hats).
Eventually, Carmencita reunites with her father, Antonio, sneaking around the evil stepmother for secret music and dancing-filled visits. From here, the fairy-tale elements are piled on through a vague timeline with a rapid influx of narrative plot points that further underline Encarna’s viciousness and Carmencita’s innocence, culminating in Antonio’s death and the attempted murder of the now-teenage Carmen (Macarena García). Having survived a strangulation and drowning attempt, Carmen is rescued by a motley clan of—ta-da!—bull-fighting dwarves (just six this time though; perhaps the seventh was lost in translation?). Carmen is suffering from amnesia following the traumatic homicide attempt, so the dwarves, known as Los Enanitos Toreros, dub her Snow White, “like the girl in the tale.” Carmen suffers from amnesia, though, and finds solace in traveling in the dwarves’ caravan, eventually becoming a quasi-famous small-time bullfighter in the process.
If the synopsis sounds frontloaded, it’s because Berger spends more time establishing a story than telling one; a massive amount of time is devoted to introducing characters, yet as is the tricky case for many fairy tales, they remain as flat as the page they were initially printed on by the Grimm brothers. As the wicked stepmother, Verdú attempts to sink her prominent front teeth into the material, so aware of her camp value that her malevolent moxie is rendered dull. The character’s villainous ways are meant to meld with a winking intelligence, and yet Verdú’s kitschy posturing quickly grows tedious. And, by extension, this is the film’s major flaw: It’s taken a source material, added a gorgeous façade, and expected the ostentatious imagery and pulsing soundtrack to pull the weight without much drive forward. The epilogue, however, is an ambiguous, phantasmagoric coda, possessing a thorny, evocative attitude sorely missed from a majority of the blandly melodramatic film.
As pretty as it is unsurprising, Blancanieves is severely lacking in expression. Berger strives to develop an aesthetic, or rekindle the relic of ancient film grammar, that will inform the pastiche’s content, but the pacing issues keep the fastidiously composed style from becoming substance. Despite the integral, and successful, incorporation of ecstatic Spanish symphonies, Blancanieves is a feat of visual storyboarding rather than storytelling.