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December 2013


cast: Maribel Verdu, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Inma Cuesta, and Macarena Garcia

director: Pablo Berger

104 minutes (12) 2012
StudioCanal DVD Region 2

RATING: 5/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont


Back in 2011, the French director Michel Hazanavicius took a break from producing comedy spy movies for his domestic market and decided to make a silent film about a star of silent movies. Titled The Artist, this film not only made about-a-bazillion-dollars at the box office, it also picked up awards from all across the cinematic spectrum. If ever proof was needed that audiences would pay to sit through a silent film, The Artist provided it in spades. As with all unexpected successes, that of The Artist prompted the film industry to begin casting about for other silent films to release in cinemas. Some canny operators saw their chance and organised screenings of silent classics like Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, but others were considerably more ambitious. Set in 1920s Spain, Pablo Berger's Blancanieves is a telling of Snow White that re-invents the titular heroine as a bullfighter. Slow, underpowered and oddly insubstantial for a film not marketed at children, Berger's film remains a fascinating experiment in using traditional cinematic techniques to reach a contemporary audience.

Having been born in a period when cinema is a mature art form, it is easy to forget that there was a time when people had literally no idea how to go about telling a story using moving images. The Lumiere brothers experimented with early film cameras and screened their results for Parisian audiences only to see their customers run screaming from the building having confused footage of a train pulling into a station with a real-life train heading right for them. Cinema is not a natural phenomenon and so many early films are little more than attempts to work out how the mind makes sense of moving images and how the process of collecting those images might be altered to change the character of the film. For example, it was not until 1898 that Robert W. Paul's Come Along, Do! hit upon the idea of having a series of events carry over across more than one scene and even then the transition from a couple standing outside an art gallery to a couple standing inside an art gallery required a significant imaginative leap by the audience, but leap audiences did, and so more films were made using that technique.

Martin Scorsese's 3D spectacular Hugo portrays the birth of narrative cinema as a quasi-fantastical event but this heavily sentimentalised origin story serves only to downplay the epic journey undertaken both by filmmakers and their audiences. For example, early filmmakers such as Jean Epstein and Sergei Eisenstein wrote entire books speculating about how the mind processes images and how these processes might be manipulated in order to produce more complex works of art. For these directors, each new film was an experiment and each experiment demanded more of its audience. With every new generation came not only new methods but also new technologies with their own suite of techniques to master and refine. Film by film, generation by generation, the language of cinema grew and the artistic potential of film grew with it... and yet it is not entirely clear that today's films are more complex than those of previous generations. The people directing superhero films have access to resources, technologies and methods so advanced as to be literally incomprehensible to early cinematic pioneers and yet Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel is not only dull and derivative but also far less substantial than many films of the 1920s. This suggests either that Zack Snyder is an incompetent filmmaker or that contemporary filmmakers are not drawing upon the full suite of techniques available to them.

Last year, Eureka Entertainment's art house label 'masters of cinema' re-released both Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, and Fritz Lang's twin epic fantasies Die Niebelungen. Made in the 1920s, these films demonstrate quite how much information cinema contained even before the introduction of such modern innovations as complex dialogue, sound effects, colour, CGI, or 3D. For example, much of the impact of Dreyer's film comes from his willingness to contrast the very complex and human emotions playing across Joan's face with the set of inhuman visages of the men who would claim to evaluate her morality and sanctity. Similarly, Lang's fantasies are some of the most spectacular and lavishly produced action movies that 1920s Germany could create but they also contain the sophisticated character study of a woman who is transformed into an unstoppable nihilistic force by a pair of selfish and hypocritical men. Both of these films are far better than Blancanieves but the failures of Berger's film are fascinating as they highlight quite how much technical expertise has been either lost or ignored as cinema has slowly increased its bandwidth.

Blancanieves presents itself as a film that is technically appropriate for its 1920s setting; not just silent but also shot in black and white, the film tells its story using a combination of striking imagery, inter-titles, and an elaborate musical score.

Visually speaking, the film is extraordinarily accomplished and yet somehow less than its constituent parts. Cinematographer Kiko de la Rica carefully composes every shot while the glamorous production design of Alain Bainee imbues the film with echoes of 1920s fashion shoots: feathers, dark eyes, and the intoxicating theatricality of matador costumes and flamenco dresses. Somewhat tellingly, while one of the DVD extras includes Berger talking about black and white film creating a sense of magical unreality, nothing about Blancanieves suggests that we are anywhere other than historical 1920s Spain. De la Rica's use of shadow and light may bear a fleeting resemblance to that of German expressionist films like Nosferatu and The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, but nothing about these shadows suggest that expressionistic blurring of internal and external worlds.

Similarly, Berger may have been inspired by the stilted realism of David Lynch's black and white fairy tale The Elephant Man but nothing in Blancanieves is weird enough to wrench us from the mundane and reposition us inside the fantastical. Sure, the film contains a number of dwarves but that particular surrealist cliché is far too familiar to be effective. One is reminded of Tom DiCillo's darkly comic Living In Oblivion where an angry dwarf actor played by Peter Dinklage takes the director to task for his lack of imagination ("I don't even have dreams with dwarves in them!" he shouts). Blancanieves is a film that looks pretty and affected rather than fantastical and atmospheric.

Musically, Berger undermines his film by making a serious tactical error in the opening scenes. Having decided upon 1920s Spain as a setting, Berger re-invents Snow White as the daughter of a flamenco dancer (Inma Cuesta) and a wealthy bullfighter (Daniel Gimenez Cacho). In what was clearly an attempt to be evocative of his chosen period, Berger elected to use a score that makes heavy use of flamenco music. Though certainly in keeping with the film's plot, this choice of music is somewhat unfortunate as while flamenco is really good at handling big Technicolour emotions like lust, despair, and elation, it really struggles to follow the emotional life of a pre-teen girl who just wants to spend some time with her dad.

Having failed to marshal both his visual and his musical resources in an effective manner, Berger is forced onto the decidedly contemporary footing of relying upon scripting and actors to tell the story, and this is where silent film's lack of bandwidth really bites as the actors seem to take their cues from the inter-titles and the inter-titles are all featureless snippets of dialogue meaning that none of the actors ever transcends the childish and stereotypical origins of their characters: evil stepmother is evil, warm-hearted child is warm-hearted, broken patriarch is broken, and dwarves provide a deeply questionable combination of comedy and pathos.

In the days before sound and CGI, directors used craft and technique to tell incredibly complex cinematic stories using only a combination of imagery and musical cues. As technology advanced and the bandwidth of the cinematic medium increased, many of the complex techniques developed by silent filmmakers were overlooked in favour of more simple and straightforward means of communication. Why spend months carefully crafting and choreographing a particular scene when a single line of dialogue can communicate exactly the same amount of information? As early filmmakers discovered, audiences can and do make leaps of the imagination but many choose not to... why alienate potential customers by demanding more of them? Why force them to make sense of the director's attempts to visually represent depression when you can have Tom Hanks turn to the camera and announce that he is sad? One of the fundamental differences between mainstream cinema and art cinema is that art house directors continue to use and refine a suite of techniques developed in the era of silent film. The modern equivalent of traditional silent films are not period nostalgia pieces like Blancanieves or The Artist but films that attempt to say more with less.

In 1963, the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman produced a film with no dialogue at all. The Silence is a genuinely extraordinary exercise in technical self-control as while Bergman does make use of sound effects and incomprehensible mumbling, he effectively manages to tell a complex psychological story without a single line of dialogue or even an inter-title. This desire to demand more from your audience and keep them making imaginative leaps is now firmly embedded in the DNA of the art house tradition but it is particularly noticeable in such recent dialogue-free triumphs as Jose Luis Guerin's In The City Of Sylvia, Mao Mao's Here, Then, and Amer by Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Watching these films reminds us of how crude, lazy and wasteful Hollywood filmmaking has become. It also shows us quite how much the likes of Pablo Berger need to learn before they can tell a compelling story without the use of dialogue.

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