Director: Pablo Berger
Starring: Macarena García, Maribel Verdú, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Sofía Oria
In 2011 Michel Hazanavicius’ homage to classic silent cinema, The Artist, rode a wave of critical acclaim all the way to the Best Oscars. It was the first silent film to win the award since … in …, and in the process it demonstrated that silent cinema as a medium still had plenty to offer and there was still a market for it. The advent of synchronised sound in cinema in the 1920s revolutionised filmmaking, and in the eyes of many it made silent film a redundant medium. But silent film is simply a different medium that offers a different experience. For Spanish filmmaker Pablo Berger, watching Hazanavicius accept the gold statue for Best Picture and Best Director must have been a bitter sweet moment. On the one hand the success of The Artist demonstrated that a well-made silent film could still be very successful. On the other hand it ensured that despite the fact he had already been developing his own silent film, Blancanieves, for a number of years, it would always be read in relation to this other picture. But while The Artist may have paved the way to some extent for Berger’s film, there is no denying that Blancanieves is an amazing achievement in its own right.
Blancanieves reimagines the story of Snow White as a silent melodrama set in the south of Spain in the 1920s. Carmen, the daughter of Antonio Villalta – once Spain’s most famous bullfighter who is now a quadriplegic after an accident in the ring – is forced to flee her evil step-mother Encarna who is keen to rid herself of Antonio and his daughter so she can enjoy his fortune in peace. Carmen is taken in by a band of dwarf bullfighters. When they discover her talent as a matador they incorporate her into their act and she quickly rises to become a national sensation, much to the horror of Encarna.
Berger’s adaptation does away with all the supernatural elements of the story; there is no magic mirror, no enchantments and no spells. But despite this, it retains the sense of wonder and magic of a fairy tale. Blancanieves definitely aligns itself more closely with the tone of the original Brothers Grimm version of the tale. It is quite dark and tragic, and the film’s conclusion in particular is by no means sees everyone living happily ever after. This is no Disney fairy tale.
This is a completely different beast to The Artist. Hazanavicius’ film was an endearing, modern, love letter to the world of silent films. It was a joyous film which had a fun, tongue-in-cheek approach to its silence. Blancanieves is more of an homage to the silent films of the 1910s and 1920s, with its style and selection of techniques giving it the feel of an authentic product of that era. If not for some scenes in which Encarna penchant for sadomasochism is seen, which never would have made it past the censors in the early 1900s, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a 90 year old film.
The very concept of silent film is itself a misnomer. Sound, in the form of a musical score, has always played an important role in the cinema, even before the advent of dialogue in films, and this is no different in Blancanieves where the events of the story are brought to life by Alfonso de Vilallonga’s romantic score.
If this film has a fault, it is probably that it is about 15 minutes too long – even though a 105 minute runtime is hardly exorbitant by today’s standards – as a result of a slight imbalance in the story. Berger’s script seems more interested in setting up the story, establishing the characters of Carmen, Antonio, Carmen’s mother and Encarna and the relationships between them, than it is in actually telling the story. So it is not until about halfway through the film, just when you are starting to think it might be dragging, that the Snow White narrative we are familiar with really kicks in. However, the story is so beautifully told, and the performance of Sofía Oria as the young Carmen is so endearing that you are largely happy to go with it.
Blancanieves is a clever and interesting reimagining of a familiar story, a visually beautiful featuring some engaging performances and shows the simple power of visual storytelling. Somewhat ironically, given it is a dialogue free film, it was Spain’s official nomination for Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Academy Awards, though it didn’t make the final nominees list.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Georges Méliès
Starring: Georges Méliès, Victor André, Bleuette Bernon, Brunnet, Jeanne d’Alcy, Henry Delannoy, Depierre, Farjaut, Kelm
The image of a rocket stuck into the eye of the anthropomorphic-faced moon in Georges Méliès’ 1902 film Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) is among the most famous and enduring in cinematic history. The film itself, which tells the story of a scientific expedition to the moon, the resulting encounters with aliens, and the return journey via the bottom of the ocean, is undoubtedly the first great movie.
Often referred to as the father of narrative filmmaking, Georges Méliès is arguably the first cinematic master. Directing more than 500 films between 1896 and 1913, the majority of which he also wrote, produced and starred in, Méliès can be credited with establishing many of the elements which would become the foundations of what we know as the cinema. The moving picture medium was invented by the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, in the late 19th century. They toured their short, fifty second films around the world and were wildly popular, but at this point, the attraction was the medium itself, moving pictures, rather than the specific content of their films. The Lumières’ films were all actuality films – a primitive form of documentary simply concerned with the capturing of real events – the most famous of which was 1896’s L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat), which featured a train pulling into a platform and caused audiences to scream and duck for cover as the train approached the screen. It was Méliès who, having become fascinated with the Lumières’ invention, saw the potential of this new medium for imagination and fictional storytelling. Nowhere is this imagination more apparent than in the fantastic narrative of La voyage dans la lune. As Martin Scoresese put it, “the Lumières gave us the world as we knew it, and Méliès gave it to us as we imagined and extended it.”
Before becoming a filmmaker, Méliès had been a magician, and that background in theatricality and illusion would be incredibly influential on his filmmaking. While his earliest films were simply recreations of his stage shows, he soon began to experiment with the technology and as a result became responsible for the development of many of the earliest forms of special effects including stop motion, time-lapse photography, multiple exposures and dissolves. For a film made only seven years after the Lumières first introduced the medium to the world, Le voyage dans la lune features a staggeringly sophisticated use of both staged visual effects and more complicated editing effects. With each scene being a single shot from a stationary camera, the sets are able to function much like traditional theatre sets, with openings and trapdoors which characters can come in and out of. The iconic image of the face on the moon was achieved through superimposing one image shot over another. We have characters appearing and disappearing into puffs of smoke through the use of jump cutting, the very same principle I Dream of Jeannie would employ 65 years later. The picture was released in both black-and-white and colour prints, with the colour prints having been hand coloured, frame-by-frame. This magician really put the wonder and magic into moviemaking.
Not only did Le voyage dans la lune feature a fantastical story – the first ever sci-fi movie – and innovative use of the medium, at a time when the average film only ran for one or two minutes, La voyage dans la lune’s fifteen minute runtime (at the then standard 16 frames per second) made it positively epic by comparison.
In 1993, the Filmoteca de Catalunya in Barcelona discovered a hand-coloured print of the film, the only one known to have survived, that had almost completely decomposed. In 1999 the Technicolor Lab of Los Angeles launched a frame-by-frame restoration project which would take over a decade. The completed restoration, with a new soundtrack by the French band, Air, was screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival almost 110 years after its initial release, and has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray.
By Duncan McLean