Blancanieves: A brief review

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 ***This post contains spoilers; please do not read if you still want to watch the film without knowing what happens!***

On Saturday afternoon, I finally got the chance to watch Pablo Berger’s 2012 film Blancanieves.  The film touches on several topics pertinent to my PhD thesis; in writing this, I’ve realised how much I need to unpack what I think about the film, particularly in terms of performance, gender, and nation.  As a result, this post is a rudimentary introduction to the film, which I hope to follow up with more nuanced interpretations at a later date.

Berger’s Blancanieves was one of three cinematic retellings of the Snow White tale to be released in 2012: the other two were Mirror Mirror: The Untold Adventures of Snow White, which was directed by Tarsem Singh with Julia Roberts in the role of the evil stepmother; and Snow White and the Huntsman, which was directed by Rupert Sanders and stars Kristen Stewart as Snow White and Charlize Theron as the evil stepmother.  Though I haven’t seen Mirror Mirror, the distinctiveness of each of the three retellings is evidence of the richness and adaptability of fairytale narratives, which continue to provide fuel for our imaginations.

Stylistically, Blancanieves is the most ambitious of 2012’s three retellings of Snow White: set in 1920s Spain, the film is both silent and black and white.  The likenesses between it and the Oscar-winning The Artist are not difficult to see; however, it is worth noting that Berger’s project has been in development for a number of years (read an interview with him here (in Spanish) where he talks about his inspiration for the film, the years he put into the project and so on).

Berger’s adaptation sees the Snow White narrative take on a (somewhat stereotypical) Spanish twist.  The protagonist is a young girl named Carmen (Macarena García), daughter of bull-fighter Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and flamenco performer Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta).  While Antonio is treated in hospital following an accident in the bullring, his wife is also in hospital, and dies giving birth to their first child.  Nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdú), learns of this and works her way into Antonio’s life.  According to the ‘Making Of’ feature on the DVD, the role of the evil stepmother was written specifically for Verdú.  Blancanieves is, in this respect, akin to Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman in its casting of an attractive young woman in this role.

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Following the death of her mother, and her father’s remarriage, the child is brought up by her maternal grandmother (Ángela Molina), who teaches her to dance flamenco.  When her grandmother passes away, Carmen is sent to live with Encarna.  She forbids the child from ascending the stairs to the first floor – where her wheelchair-bound father lives.  Carmen is forced to sleep in a squalid outbuilding, and to work relentlessly on the estate.  One day, she decides to defy her stepmother and venture upstairs.  Carmen and her father develop a close bond: he teaches her the art of bullfighting; and she dances flamenco for him.  Encarna discovers this betrayal, and slays Carmen’s pet chicken Pepe.  She then arranges for her lover to attack Carmen in the woods.  Unconscious, and with no memory of who she is, Carmen is taken in by six bullfighting dwarves.  They label her ‘Blancanieves, como la del cuento’ (‘like her from the fairytale’).

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Through them, she rediscovers her knowledge of bullfighting.  She begins performing with them, becoming famous in the process.  As the story unfolds, Encarna becomes aware of the true identity of ‘Blancanieves’, and attempts to poison her with an apple following a victorious performance in the Plaza de Toros in Seville.  Slipping into a coma, the girl continues to function as a spectacle.  Patrons pay a small fee to be able to kiss her on the lips, in the hope that she will awake.  The film ends with one of the dwarves kissing Carmen on the lips: the camera closes in on the corner of her eye, detailing a tear brimming at its edge.

I’ll begin at the end, simply because the image is strikingly ambivalent.  The film avoids the conventional fairytale, ‘happily ever after’ ending.  Carmen, our Spanish Snow White, does not awaken from her slumber with a kiss from a Prince.  In fact, she’s not even shown waking up.  The tear is thus ambiguous: has Carmen/Snow White awakened?  Or is this an automatic bodily response, akin to those of the comatose female bodies of Pedro Almodóvar’s Hable con ella?  Is this a tear of joy?  Or of sadness?  For me at least, the absence of a Prince opens up feminist possibilities within Blancanieves and the Snow White narrative more generally.  (This is supported by the fact that it is not Carmen who takes care of the dwarves after they take her into their home; it is, rather, cross-dressing dwarf Josefa who carries out such duties).  However, the question remains as to where Carmen/Snow White’s freedom lies in this film.  Her ambivalent tear leaves these distinct interpretations open.

The ambivalence of Carmen/Snow White’s character is apparent throughout the film, particularly with regard to her familial and national heritage.  In the first instance, the name Carmen is of the utmost significance in terms of the complexities of Spanish national identity.  The figure of Carmen was created by Prosper Mérimée in his 1845 novella of the same name.  The novella was later adapted into an opera by Georges Bizet.  Crucially then, Carmen is a French creation, an icon of Spanishness imposed upon Spain from the outside.  She is a product of nineteenth-century Francophone Romanticism, which figured Spain as the exotic Other of Europe.  (For more on this, see my post ‘Spaniards, Immigrants, and Tourists in Contemporary “Spanish” Cinema’).  Over the years, Carmen has been consistently reappropriated, her story retold in a variety of distinct contexts (see the excellent volume Carmen on Film: A Cultural History or Ann Davies’ chapter ‘The Male Body and the Female Gaze in Carmen Films’ in The Trouble with Men: Masculinities in European and Hollywood Cinema for examples of such adaptations).  Despite her appropriation by Spaniards, the most iconic filmic examples being Florián Rey’s Carmen, la de Triana (1938) and Carlos Saura’s Carmen (1983), she remains an icon of cultural complexity in the Spanish context, an ambivalent figure that is at once Spanish and foreign, self and other.  In this respect, the recasting of Snow White as a Spanish Carmen adds a further layer of intricacy to the conceptualisation of Spanish national identity.

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Furthermore, as the daughter of a bullfighting father and a flamenco-performing mother, Carmen is imbued with (albeit stereotypical) Spanishness.  Both pursuits have become synonymous with Spain, certainly from out with Spanish borders.  Significantly, it is through the pursuit of bullfighting that Carmen regains her memory.  This, coupled with the fact that the film is set in the 1920s, points towards a reclamation of Spanishness and/or a sense of identity more generally, through an engagement with the past.

In sum, Blancanieves delves into questions of the performance of national identity, by combining an engagement with stereotypical symbols of such an identity with a narrative format that is not confined by national boundaries.  This identity is, it seems, commandeered by the past, both in terms of the film’s setting in the 1920s, and in relation to the importance of memory for the protagonist in her reclamation of her own past.  (We should note that it is through bullfighting – rather than flamenco – that her memory returns, indicating a particularly strong affinity with her father).  While the absence of a Prince to save Carmen/Snow White strikes me as potentially feminist, the film continually closes down the girl’s possibilities for freedom and/or independence.  As I’ve already mentioned, this post has aided me in articulating my initial thoughts on viewing the film, and while writing, I’ve realised that there is still a lot I need to think through more carefully.  Suffice to say for the moment, that Blancanieves is an intricately layered film that requires much teasing out – a task I hope to fulfil in my chapter on Performance, and perhaps in another blog post (or two!).