Snow White (Blanche Neige)
Director/Choreography – Angelin Preljocaj, Producer – Charles Gillibert, Photography – Yorkc Le Saux, Music – Gustav Mahler, Production Design – Sylvie Barthet & Servane Veillon. Production Company – MK2 TV/Arte France/Mezzo/France Television/Ballet Preljocaj
Nagisa Shirai (Snow White), Celine Galli (Wicked Stepmother), Sergio Diaz (Prince Charming), Sebastien Durand (The King), Gaelle Chappaz (The Queen), Emilie Lalande & Yurie Tsugawa (The Cat Gargoyles)
A queen dies while giving birth to a daughter. The daughter Snow White grows up loved by her father and is soon attracted to a handsome prince. However, she is threatened by her stepmother, a witch, who orders woodsmen to take Snow White into the woods and kill her. They instead let her go where she is found and taken in by seven miners. The stepmother makes further plans to poison Snow White off.
I am a philistine. Give me a choice between high culture – opera, ballet, classic literature – or vulgar culture – something Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) or Zombie – Flesh Eaters (1979) – and I know which I would opt for any time. When it comes to ballet, I remain ignorant on such matters and could not tell a pas de deux from a plie or a grand jete if my life depended on it. That said, I take fearless pride in watching anything that comes under the fantastic cinema umbrella, often material that other genre commentators automatically dismiss. I have never had much inspiration to review other ballet films – the various filmed versions of Swan Lake (1876) and The Nutcracker (1892) both nominally fall within fantasy guidelines, for instance – principally due to the fact that they are more about the presentation of the form (ballet) than they are about telling fantasy stories. Nevertheless, I have covered ballet adaptations once or twice before – see Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971) and Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002).
This adaptation of Snow White comes from Angelin Preljocaj, a French-Algerian choreographer who has gained international fame for his modern reinterpretations of classical ballets. Angelin Preljocaj’s Snow White was originally staged at the Biennale de Lyon in 2008 and later toured various regions of the world. The ballet came with a score adapted from Gustav Mahler and costumes designed by haute couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier. The film seen here is a recording of one of these performances.
I sat down to watch Snow White not knowing what to expect – and ended up amazed by what Angelin Preljocaj has done. A film adaptation of Snow White brings with it innumerable associations with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and children’s pantomime. However, this is a Snow White that dismisses all of that and comes in adult terms that are not afraid of being dark or even erotic. Rather than the usual crenulated cardboard turrets, tutus and ballgowns, this is a visually sombre Snow White made for grown-ups. As a ballet, Angelin Preljocaj takes it out of high-art formalism and renders it in strikingly modernist terms. That said, Preljocaj keeps surprisingly close to the commonly accepted basics of the fairytale and never elaborates much beyond these or attempts to modernise them – indeed, he strips the story down to a minimalist telling assuming that the audience know the basics already and are familiar with who the characters are. There is also a strong adult element – the scene where the Wicked Stepmother gives Snow White the apple is rendered with less a sense of the Stepmother merely handing something to Snow White than a distinct sense of violation where she is bodily forcing it down her throat.
Angelin Preljocaj’s choreography is striking. It is immediately evident that we are watching something different from the opening scene where the queen (Gaelle Chappaz) gives birth across a mist-filled stage. In the subsequent scene, we trace Snow White’s maturation from child to adult by the remarkable effect of her dancing with her father (Sebastien Durand) and whirling behind the pillars to emerge on the other side without a break, each time having transformed from a child to a teen to finally her adult self (Nagisa Shirai). Preljocaj fills the film with extraordinary images such as the appearance of the Seven Dwarfs as miners from out of the caves on a cliffside facade, dancing upside down as they dangle on bungee cords. Or the astonishingly beautiful appearance of the mother as Snow White lies poisoned, floating through the air, coming down to lift Snow White’s supine form up in her arms. One of the most striking scenes is the meeting between Snow White and the prince where Preljocaj strips everything away to a dance that comes without any musical accompaniment, just the sounds of their feet slapping the floor as they circle one another.
The sets are dark, bare and austere. The castle interior is rendered in a burnished bronze industrialist look with Snow White and her father’s thrones as two chairs that slide vertically up slots in the wall, while the trees in the woods are represented by no more than stylised strips with glow sticks attached. The most amazing set (or rather set-piece) is the magic mirror, a giant-sized creation in a gold frame about the size of a house where sometimes we see the dancers reflected, while other times it becomes a giant video screen or we see others dancers behind mirroring the movements of those in front.
Some of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s costuming certainly raises the eyebrows. The Wicked Stepmother is outfitted in fetish gear where Celine Galli gives an appropriate whip-cracking performance – she even comes accompanied by acolytes in cat costumes. More bizarrely, the woodsmen that take Snow White away to be killed are outfitted in military khakis and berets like rebels attempting to affect the Che Guevara look. The deer they encounter in the forest is a bare-breasted woman with antlers who walks in a peculiar clockwork gait.
(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2009 list).