White As Snow

***

Reviewed by: Jane Fae

White As Snow
"There’s a lot of clever twists here, and plenty of knowing references to Snow White." | Photo: Emmanuelle Jacobson-Roques

Confused? You probably will be. Though not entirely in a bad way. White As Snow is – you guessed it – a modern-day retelling of Snow White.

Wicked stepmother Maud (Isabelle Huppert) is less than impressed when jaded middle-aged lover, Bernard (Charles Berling), takes a shine to his stepdaughter Claire (Lou de Laâge). What to do? Keep her on as wickedly exploited cheap labour? Or arrange to have her driven into the mountains for a little filial assassination? Cue misty mountain roads and wild woods, of the sort that Claire secretly fantasises about as she goes to sleep each night.

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But the plan goes wrong – a small matter of a car accident – and Claire ends up in a small but otherwise perfect village location, sharing a house with twins Pierre and Francois (both played by Damien Bonnard) and cellist Vincent (Vincent Macaigne). Also, Vincent’s shaggy dog, Chernobyl!

These are the first of the seven not so dwarfish dwarves that Claire encounters along the way. Others include a lascivious book-shop owner (Benoît Poelvoorde), who gifts her a book of lewd etchings, a most forgiving priest (Richard Fréchette), and Clément (Pablo Pauly) the innocent young lad whom she tags as “charmant”.

Snow White and the seven dwarves! How cute! But this is no Disney film. Not, that is, unless Disney had an alternative variant in mind in which the princess indulges in panting, physical onscreen sex with at least half the dwarves – and traded out Happy, Sleepy and Bashful for Hypochondriac, Submissive and, er, Bashful.

But then, White as Snow is the work of director Anne Fontaine, who likes to explore psychological drama that places complicated, conflicted women centre stage. As she told the Telegraph, back in 2004, she is a fan of stories with an element of cruelty to them.

Sex-positive, too. And what could be more positive than this reimagining alongside writers Claire Barré and Pascal Bonitzer

So, in addition to a loose resemblance to the original Grimm fairy tale (yes: the brothers Grimm also get a credit), we have a young woman’s sexual awakening juxtaposed to the waning of another.

“I didn’t know I had desires…now I want to live them”. Confesses Claire to the priest at one point. But that’s fine, since this cleric’s view of sin appears to start – and end – with “Judge not, lest ye be judged”.

Meanwhile, a resentful Maud tells Bernard that she feels “less pleasure”. There is some very heavy moralising going on here, but not the sort that any God-fearing Disney fan would acknowledge. For the message, proclaimed loud and clear from the mountain tops, is that sex is good; sex is fun; sex is liberating. Just so long as you are an attractive young woman with agency.

In which case it is a different sexual partner every day. And woe betide any man/dwarf who wants more. As Claire explains to one of her shyer shag-partners: you want me to belong to you; but I am with you.

There’s a lot of clever twists here, and plenty of knowing references to Snow White. Much playing with colour. At the beginning, Claire (her name means “pale”, “light”) is mostly wearing white. Maud wears red. But after Claire embarks on her sexual exploration, and Maud comes looking for her, playing the part of concerned stepmum, the colours reverse. There is an interesting detail, towards the grande finale, involving a statue of the local Virgin Mary cult, in which Our Lady appear to wear not her traditional blue, but a mix of reds and whites.

This was surely intended by so visual a director, who presents a succession of scenes delightfully shot, and accompanied by an equally delightful musical score.

There is comedy, too. Clément delivers the saviour role of Prince Charmant more than once. Except he never knows it. Look out for the deranged S&M scene in the book shop. And, oh! That poor squirrel!

Still, there are problems. The basic premise – that a young woman who knows her mind can have all the sex she wants, consequence-free, and her coterie of dwarves will just beam on amiably – is pure fantasy. Indeed, the tensions already simmering suggest that any sequel would involve a great deal of jealousy, violence and murdering as the seven gradually whittled down to one. Claire would return to real life with a bump.

The film also wastes Isabelle Huppert. The latter makes a fine and evil stepmum. But we get little of her. Apart from a wild dance scene toward the end, she is almost wholly upstaged by the more saccharine Claire.

In the end, an interesting film, a puzzling film, based on two fairy tales. The first, a traditional children’s story: the second a more unrealistic sex optimistic one.

Reviewed on: 13 Aug 2021
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Recasts the tale of Snow White as the story of a sheltered young woman’s sexual awakening in this racy feminist fable.

Director: Anne Fontaine

Writer: Claire Barré, Anne Fontaine, Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm

Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Benoît Poelvoorde, Lou de Laâge, Damien Bonnard, Charles Berling, Vincent Macaigne, Jonathan Cohen, Pablo Pauly, Richard Fréchette, John Sehil

Year: 2019

Runtime: 112 minutes

Country: France

Festivals:

Tribeca 2019

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