Tales of Yore is a series of articles about fairy tale adaptations. Adaptations can direct or re-imaginative, and these reviews attempt to consider the films in the context of the stories upon which they are based.
“Snow White” is a story and character familiar to most, be it through literature, film, comic books, or video games. For creators to recycle the famous narrative of a young woman whose life is threatened by a wicked stepmother and saved by dwarfs, they need a new angle. Ironically, the writer/director of Spanish film Blancanieves (2012), Pablo Berger, found a new angle by looking back to black-and-white silent film. This stylistic decision gives his story—which avoids the supernatural or fantastic—the required sense of detached reality that fairy tales utilize. While Perrault, the Grimms, Andersen, and others did this by contrasting reality as people knew it in their respective time periods to other-worldly settings and characters, Berger does it by contrasting the realistic story with a formalist approach to the medium of film.
The plot, though, can hardly be considered a throwback. Berger’s script recasts the tale of a stepdaughter scorned in 1920s Andalusia, which is part of Spain. The stepmother is given a name, Encarna (Maribel Verdú), and she marries Antonio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who is a famous bullfighter. However, her entitlement to his wealth is complicated by his daughter, Carmen (Inma Cuesta), who is the rightful heir. Thus, Encarna plans Carmen’s murder, but the young woman escapes and meets seven bullfighters who help her realize that she shares the talents of her father.
Although the story deviates, many would recognize it as a “Snow White” variant. That’s because there are underlying qualities to the story, ones that do not depend on details like location, but rather on general actions and the flow of events. Structuralism is a critical theory that tries to capture these qualities, and while the attempts to define a “Snow White” story are often flawed, they aid in the analysis of how a variant subverts the typical structure. So, structuralist analyses of “Snow White” can reveal how Blancanieves utilizes or subverts the common elements of the story, and therefore how it recycles and innovates.
Steven Swann Jones has a particularly detailed structure for “Snow White,” outlined in his essay, “The Structure of ‘Snow White.'” He claims that there are nine essential steps to almost all “Snow White” stories: Origin, Jealousy, Expulsion, Adoption, Renewed Jealousy, Death, Exhibition, Resuscitation, and Resolution. In most “Snow White” stories, those steps include:
- Snow White’s origin, or life up until the central conflict with the stepmother;
- her stepmother’s jealousy of some facet of Snow White, usually her beauty;
- her stepmother’s attempt to have Snow White expelled from the kingdom or killed;
- a set of characters (often seven dwarfs) who find and “adopt” Snow White;
- the stepmother’s discovery that Snow White still lives, which results in renewed jealousy;
- the death of Snow White at the hands of her stepmother;
- the exhibition of Snow White’s corpse;
- the resuscitation of Snow White, usually by the kiss of a prince;
- the resolution, or “happily ever after.”
There are counterexamples, and my list applies specifics that are not inherent to the episodes, but those are the steps as most people would recognize them. Notably, Blancanieves does not have three of these steps: Jealousy, Jealousy Renewed, and Resuscitation. The subversion of Jealousy and Jealousy Renewed tackles the problematic dynamics of female relationships in the original tale; rather than rooting the conflict between Carmen and Encarna in jealousy—namely envy of youth and beauty—Berger roots it in financial necessity. Encarna needs the money from her husband’s death, but Carmen also needs the inheritance. As a result, Blancanieves subverts the typically sexist focus on conflict between women rooted in superficial matters. Instead, it refocuses the story on Encarna’s motives, which stem from her attempt to survive and prosper in a patriarchal society. Because she cannot obtain wealth on her own due to the restrictions on women, she must manipulate the system of inheritance.
A new set of concerns arise here, though. Is Encarna evil because she is aggressive and greedy, even traditionally masculine? After all, she marries a man for money then neglects him, all the while having sexual relationships with others. Notably, she dominates these men. Encarna is sexually and emotionally dominant, as well as domineering, which are qualities usually associated with men or evil women. However, Blancanieves does not use masculine qualities in a woman as shorthand for evil. Rather, her negative qualities have motivation and context; she is forced to take on masculine qualities to survive in a world that privileges masculinity.She’s hardly a sympathetic figure, but you understand her circumstances and actions. She’s complex.
Carmen’s new-found career as a bullfighter also plays on the views of women in a society that privileges men and masculinity. Bullfighting is a sport of daring and ritual violence, and is largely considered a “masculine art.” To escape the cycle of violence—which is built into the cyclical nature of “Snow White” centered on the Jealousy/Renewed Jealousy events—Carmen runs from her home and starts life anew. However, by becoming a bullfighter, she actually brings herself back into the cycle: she defines her role in society in relation to the role of her father, which is what Encarna does by attempting to manipulate the inheritance of Antonio’s wealth. One could view this as Carmen missing her chance to escape, or as a commentary on the inescapable effects of a patriarchal society on women.
SPOILERS Regardless, Carmen plays the game of cojones and loses, resulting in the Death episode. What follows, though, is an interesting subversion of Resuscitation, which further benefits the retelling of the classic narrative. After Carmen is killed while bullfighting, her body is exhibited to crowds for money. Anti-Prince Charmings pay to kiss her with the hopes that she will awaken. The Resuscitation scene is so integral to “Snow White” stories that the viewer anticipates her revival, and Berger plays on that. Carmen appears to suddenly return to life, which shocks the viewer due to the film’s firm placement in reality. However, it’s all a ploy by the dwarfs, and instead of a happy resolution, we get the final shot: a single tear that rolls down the dead Carmen’s face. Her soul cries out because of the defilement of her corpse, the abuse of her body in a sexist society. The underlying sexist qualities of the original story are utilized, subverted, and confronted to reflect on the restrictions put on women in this world. END SPOILERS
Blancanieves does not settle for its interaction between the original tale and its own story. It also invites other tales of yore into its story. Carmen’s grandmother pricks her finger on the needle—not long before she dies in a merry dance. This mirrors “Sleeping Beauty,” where the eponymous heroine pricks her finger on a spindle and then falls asleep amid her merriment. Carmen is forced into a crummy basement, evoking “Cinderella,” which makes us sympathize even more with her plight. The father reads “Little Red Riding Hood” to Carmen and the Stepmother refers to one of the people who adopt Carmen as Tom Thumb.
All of these references play with our knowledge of fairy tales and further immerse us into the real-yet-not world of Blancanieves, and this technique is significant because—like the black and white cinematography and silent style—a fantastic world is created. These references keep us aware that Blancanieves is a fairy tale, and thus we should consider some of its themes and commentary as not purely standalone but a part of a larger picture. Blancanieves weaves itself into a larger discourse and contributes to it, placing itself in the fairy tale canon that continues to shape the stories people tell each other, and thus shapes the way we understand the world around us.