Like many small children with underperforming nerve-end protectors, I had to be removed from Snow White, because my terrified sobs were bothering the hardier perennials around me. My cowardice always shamed me — until repeat viewings of the Disney classic with my small daughter convinced me that one of the most beloved films in the family pantheon was in fact a horror movie about the fundamental instability of existence.
The wicked stepmother was plenty scary, but it was the tree branches clutching at Snow as she rushed through the forest that undid me. No matter how hard Disney tried to cushion the blow with tweety-birds, a household army of self-cleaning dwarfs, and an undying love, there was no denying that this tale of domestic dysfunction, along with most other parables by the implacable Brothers Grimm, is about the terrors of getting through the ups and downs of daily life.
Small wonder that the forest scene has been endlessly referenced in world cinema. It pops up again in Blancanieves, a grotesquely beautiful new take on the Snow White fable by Spanish writer-director Pablo Berger. This one's for the grown-ups, and grabby branches are the least of the troubles faced by Carmen, the newborn child of two celebrated artists.
In the first 15 minutes of this extravagantly overwrought melodrama, the baby endures the loss of both her parents to death and desertion. Thankfully, Grandma (Angela Molina) steps in to fill the breach and keep the dance lessons going. Her stewardship doesn't last, alas, and soon enough poor Carmen is shipped off to Dad's estate.
From then on, it's a wild ride through epic peaks and valleys, which is about what you'd expect in the life of Carmen, the celebrity offspring of a flamenco dancer and a bullfighter, who's made the mistake of marrying his gold-digging nurse. Had Pedro Almodovar blown in for a cameo, he'd have felt right at home.
Set in 1920s Spain, Blancanieves bows in rapturous homage to the Golden Age of European silent cinema. Lavishly upholstered in silvery black and white, complete with intertitles and a soaring score, the film is a coming-of-age story for hysterics. It's all in the chalk-white faces, their sharp features etched in black to enhance the pangs of love, jealousy and hatred.
None is more innocent than Carmen (Macarena Garcia), with her round, black eyes; and none crueler than the stepmother, Encarna (Y Tu Mama Tambien's Maribel Verdu), a snapping gorgon who holds her wheelchair-bound husband (Antonio Villalta) prisoner in his own home and forces Carmen into Cinderella slavery while she cavorts with her driver. Dwarfs are involved, but don't expect whistling while they work; a prince will show up, but he'll be an unorthodox royal, in service to a twist ending.
Brimming over with sadism and the occasional touch of kink, Blancanieves piles on the pathology that's the birthright of any fairy tale worth its salt. Yet it's still a tale of lost innocence, and Berger keeps faith with a prototype revered by the Disneys and the Grimms alike: the resilient, enterprising girl who overcomes wave after wave of adversity. Blancanieves gets a lot of help on her journey through life, but her salvation, such as it is, will turn out to be the twin performance arts she inherited from her parents.
And so it should be. I'm fond of the helpers, but a girl has got to be able to look after herself. If this Snow White becomes a superstar in her own right, it's because she followed Dad's advice and learned never to take her eyes off the bull.