I have been finding myself falling into a pattern when constructing these posts. First, a bit of genre background, or background generally. Then a bit of a discussion of the filmmakers’ history, before really tackling the film itself and pointing out where it follows formula and genre and where it deviates. Generally wrapping up with some reflections on odd moments or concepts that were particularly noticeable. I approach film reviews in this way because I think it helps to appreciate a film in a broader way, as part of a creative context. One of the things that makes mass cultural objects so fascinating is the way they share and remix similar components. Blancanieves has its origin in the “fairy story” of Snow White, and so its compounded history begins in unrecorded folk tales of the kind collected by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimme and taxonomized by Vladimir Propp in the 1920s. Propp’s work spawned the “formalist” movement of literary criticism. All of which is to say, the background context for this film is unusually complex and difuse, and sadly, I am far less qualified to talk meaningfully about folklore than my usual topics of superheroes and detectives.
The most important point that Propp makes, which underpins virtually all formalist criticism up to and including my recent post on character depth, is that instead of treating a character as an entity with the capacity for free action, they are a property emerging from the structure of the story as a whole. In their original forms, fairy tales are identifiable because of the non-real elements. There are real fairies, or magic mirrors, or animals acting completely unrealistically, or whatever. Those cues make it far easier to accept the improbable things that fairy tale protagonists do and experience. Perhaps the most cogent treatment of this issue is by Northrop Frye in The Secular Scripture, which does a lot of what Propp and Joseph Campbell were interested in without over-committing to a rigidly specific structure.
Begining in the mid 20th Century, Fairy Stories began to be retold without overt cues signalling their fantastic origin. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative uses the example of Cindarella as a story that has permeated modern culture, but in disguise. Modern versions replace the Fairy Godmother et al with more naturalistic elements, a strategy I would broadly (and very controversially) describe as “magic realism”. The more naturalistic the veneer, the harder it is to discern the true origin of the story. Modern retellings are not usually clearly derived from a single story either, and the remixing process helps disguise what’s going on.
And so with all that background, we can turn to Blancanieves. Blancanieves is “magic realism” because there are no apparent traces of the magical elements from the fairy story. The world inhabited and experienced by the characters is, inasmuch as film ever is, realistic. There is cause and effect, human behaviour and human tragedy. Yet, it there are some elements that in a purely realistic film would cause consternation. The most prominent example is the Evil Queen, here the Evil Stepmother, displays thoroughgoing and unexplained vindictiveness. From the first frame she appears until her eventual demise, she is pure evil in a way that doesn’t express real human complexity. In other words, the tension between the fantastic origin and realistic representation is at its maximum.
This tension is reflected in the choice to make the film both black-and-white and silent.
Black and white films create a distance between the world and the audience because humans see in colour. Black and white is automatically striking and artificial. In this case, that sense is parallel to the sensation of the magic realism, where realism is a veneer. Simplistically, Black and White enhances the ability of the audience to recognise the magical story structure because of its unrealism. The Artist used a similar strategy, but those who therefore undervalue the effect of Black and White in Blancanieves might as well argue that there can only be a single CGI epic in each generation of films.
Conceptually, The Artist was about sound, and so black-and-white film was in part a facilitation of that theme. It was set in the transition from silent to talking, and so it used the technology of the time, including a general approach to cinematography. I haven’t watched it again specifically to look at camera movements, but my impression remains that it was made in the style of the films its characters make. That is partially what makes it a near-perfect love-letter to cinema. Blancanieves is not interested in the medium and mechanism of film specifically, so it uses a number of very modern approaches to camera position and movement. Aside from the lack of colour, it looks like a modern film, where The Artist consciously looked like a period film.
Perhaps as a result, Blancanieves is breathtakingly beautiful. From the opening shots of an empty Seville, every image is carefully composed, perfectly framed and impeccably captured on film. The cinematographer has almost over-exposed most shots, creating striking contrast between black and white. No detail is lost, each is starkly rendered. The lack of speech highlights and cements the supremacy and genius of the visual design.
Next time someone talks to me about “visual storytelling” or “visual intelligence” I will point them at Hero for colour, and this for black and white.
The effect that the production design creates is to restore the magical sensation to the film. It doesn’t destroy the overt realism of the film, it overlays a sense of wonder. The extreme beauty of the film generates a level of engagement that completely overcomes any chance of trying to apply realism strongly enough to ruin the experience. In other words, Blancanieves gets to have its cake and eat it too: it is real, but magical.