When movies moved from silent to sound, a number of critics and artists bemoaned it because they felt film would lose not just a visual quality, but also its feeling of realism (even though we actually hear in real life). When movies went from black and white to color, the critics also bemoaned it, again saying it robbed film of reality (even though, again, in reality we see in color). It eventually got to a point where you felt that these critics thought the reason movies were silent and in black and white was from an aesthetic choice rather than a lack of one.
Since then, quite understandably, the number of movies both silent and in black and white have greatly diminished, especially silent ones. Other than comedians like Jacques Tati paying homage to silent movie clowns, there has been Mel Brook’s 1976 Silent Movie, which was a about a director wanting to get support to make the first silent film in forty years; Charles Lane’s 1989’s Sidewalk Stories, a movie that was a commentary on communication; and of course, who can forget Michel Hazanavicius’ 2011 The Artist, about a silent movie star who refuses to go with the time and make talkies—though the movie becomes a talky at the end when the star gives in to the inevitable.
No matter what you may have thought of the above mentioned movies, you could at least come up with a reason as to why they were silent. In some way or another, it was a novelty and that was part of the point. Now we have writer/director Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves, a variation on the story of Snow White and Spain’s entry in the Academy’s foreign language film category. It’s also silent as well as in black and white. But for the life of me, I can’t come up with one convincing reason as to why, except that, well, I don’t know…the French did it? In no way does it add anything to the story or its impact (except to make us glad that movies are no longer silent since the lack of sound in the movie seemed to give the overall film a certain lethargy—let’s just say, it’s not the fastest moving of movies of late).
Blancanieves is basically divided into three parts of which only one, the middle one, works. The first is the origin story of our heroine. On the day her famous toreador father was gored by a bull and ended up paralyzed, she is born, but her mother dies in childbirth. The father refuses to look at her. His nurse, seeing a golden ticket opportunity, seduces her way into being his new wife and the daughter is raised by her grandmother. When her grandmother dies, the daughter goes to her father, but she is made into a slave by her evil-stepmother. Why is unclear. What most likely would have happened is the girl would have been shunted off to boarding school until she was old enough to marry into money, but that’s not what happens here. I know, I know. This is a sort of fairy tale, so I should take that into account. But I do think this lack of logic does suggest what is wrong with the movie—it screams out innovation and originality in the black and white and silent aesthetic, while showing little to no such innovation and originality in the screenplay (a common problem with movies lately, it seems to me).
Once the father dies, the girl is sent off with the chauffeur to be killed, but he miscarries, and she ends up alive, discovered by six little people (yes, only six, but this leads to a neat little MadMen joke about how marketing is more important than truth) who are a comic bull fighting troupe. She’s lost her memory, but her instincts take over and she becomes a marvelous toreador in her own right, bringing fame to the troupe until they call themselves Snowhite and the Seven Dwarves. This is the highlight of the story. It’s clever, exciting and after having to drudge your way through the first part, you’re finally sitting up in your seat.
But then the third part begins. The evil stepmother finds Snowhite and just as the toreador remembers who she is, our heroine bites into that poison apple and she goes into a coma. And then it gets really odd. Her avaricious agent, who for some reason doesn’t drop her and find others to represent, turns her and the little people into a cheap carnival side show act where people can pay ten cents to kiss her to see if she will awake.
And this is really where I had a problem. Now, okay, I know this isn’t rape. I do. No, I really, really do. But still, no…I’m sorry, but it sure felt like one step away from it. I mean, she’s in a coma for God’s sake, she has no control, and some slimy bastard is allowing men to pay to kiss her. Again, I’m sorry, but I thought it was kind of…well, I’ll say creepy to be polite, though that really isn’t the word I’m thinking of, and it just made me think of the scenes in Kill Bill where someone was paying a hospital orderly so he could have sex with the comatized Uma Thurman (though at least there we were suppose to be horrified rather than wistful, as we are to feel here).
And so the story ends, Snowhite never awakening, being taken care of by the one little person who loved her. It’s not a particularly satisfying resolution. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take away with me. The original story is about how someone who is oppressed can be saved (in a somewhat anti-women’s lib way, perhaps, but still). But this movie is about how someone who is oppressed is then more oppressed when she tries for freedom. So what is the theme suppose to be: “why bother?” It’s an odd moral. At the same time, I’m not convinced that Berger really thought it through. It just seems an odd ending chosen for the sake of an odd ending, just like the black and white and silence seems like an odd choice for the sake of being odd. But I think there’s a difference between being odd for the sake of being different and in being original.