One of the most misleading comments made about Blancanieves, the new and silent film of Pablo Berger, is that it is a tribute to the European silents of the '20s, in an implicit comparison to The Artist, as if this were the Murnau-inspired reply to the 2011 film directed by Michel Hazanavicius, supposedly more influenced by their American counterparts. But in truth Blancanieves is hardly a tribute to anything, at least not first and foremost. Unlike The Artist, Blancanieves is not a film primarily about being silent, its silence is never underlined and the lack of sound doesn’t become a part of the plot. It’s a film that just happens to be silent, as if that were just one of many possible ways of telling a story, as if being silent were as common or as current as being a talkie. Sure, one can find frenzied montages of Abel Gance influence or compositions that will bring to mind Murnau or Eisenstein, but the open tributes to something in particular are few and always add an element of re-contextualization that makes them fresh, because the movie never wants to be a copy of films of the past, but a current, modern film, that the filmmaker simply decided to tell in a silent way.
That quality may be one of the film’s most endearing elements or one of its most puzzling ones, depending on each audience member’s taste. Some may find the device useless, pointless or unjustified, as if it needed a meta-cinematic alibi to be silent (or they may trick themselves into thinking of the movie as just a tribute, when it isn’t). Others, like me, will find it refreshing that someone just felt the tale he wanted to tell needed this extra layer of abstraction and stylization to be fully absorbed.
And hence we come to the tale Berger wants to tell. Among the most surprising aspects of Blancanieves is the amount of true cruelty and sadness with which the director has infused it. Not that he’s the first one to notice the inherent darkness in many of the old children's stories, but instead of amplifying it by transforming the tale into a gothic horror story, like many have done before, he grounds it in reality, in a recognizable (if heavily stylized) world that’s closer to ours, a world with inheritances, impresarios, tabloids and class consciousness, making us realise that this story of corrupted and brutalised innocence may not be as fantastic as we thought. And the suppression of all supernatural elements, like magic and charming princes, only adds to that feeling. By the end of the film we’ve witnessed such a parade of greed, perversion, abuse and vanity (and coming not just from the stepmother) that we understand any chance of a happy ending will come at a high price. Berger celebrates and underlines the naïf aspect of children’s fantasies, but never ceases to contrast it with a darkness that’s real and frightening despite being caricatured, and that’s exactly how his formal decisions, his choosing to film the story as a silent, monochrome movie, end up making perfect sense: it’s what allows him to blend so well the whimsical with the bizarre, to tell a cruel story as if it were a bedtime tale, since his filmic language of extreme stylization puts the magic in a reality that has none. The marriage of these two extremes, the luminous and the dark, is, in the end, the point and signature of a film that, if it had to be linked to a precedent (which it doesn’t), wouldn’t find it in the European vanguards of the '20s, but in films like The Night of the Hunter, Sparrows, or some of the strange movies Tod Browning made with Lon Chaney.
At first sight this Blancanieves may feel like a flashy but slightly hollow exercise in style, a funny but not especially insightful post-modern game to be forgotten when the next one comes along, and I won’t deny that was the first impression this reviewer took from the film; but weeks afterward, what lingers in mind is the sad, bizarre quality the tale really had, and especially its haunting ending, which may be the key to understanding the point of it all.