'White as Snow' ('Blanche comme neige'): Film Review

Courtesy of Emmanuelle Jacobson-Roques/Mandarin Production Gaumont
A Snow White that’s very French and very NSFW.

Lou de Laage and Isabelle Huppert star in Anne Fontaine’s modern retelling of the classic fairy tale.

In writer-director Anne Fontaine’s oh-so-French take on the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Snow White is a beautiful 20-something experiencing a major sexual liberation, the seven dwarfs are actually seven horny suitors most of whom sleep with, or try to sleep with, Snow White, and the wicked stepmother is, well, Isabelle Huppert.

Kinky and kind of ridiculous, White as Snow (Blanche comme neige), as the film is ironically called, posits itself as a seductive feminist twist on a tale told many times on screen, from the 1937 Disney favorite to the recent reiteration featuring Kristen Stewart as a sword-swinging badass. Here, Snow White, who’s named Claire and played by rising talent Lou de Laage (also the star of Fontaine’s The Innocents), is left for dead in a forest outside Geneva, then clamors back to life through a series of erotic adventures she shares with different men in a tiny town perched atop the Alps.

Pourquoi pas?” as the French say. But the problem with White as Snow isn’t that it proposes a fresh — or is that hot — take on the famous 19th century story, but that it does so in such a clumsy and corny way. The sex scenes, of which there are a handful, stretch from overwrought art house eroticism to tongue-in-cheek kitsch — the latter best exemplified by a sequence where Belgian actor Benoit Poelvoorde, who plays a lecherous villager, gets off on all fours as Claire gives him a whipping at the back of his antique bookshop.

Outside the bedroom (or the car or the forest floor or wherever else people do it here), much of the dialogue feels stilted, and the filmmaking, while benefiting from picturesque settings (captured in ample drone shots) and de Laage’s photogenic charms, never finds the right tone. During a screening caught in Paris, certain scenes provoked mild chuckles or sighs from the audience, while overall the movie seemed too long and too, um, unsatisfying. In the least, it’s lighthearted fare, taking enough liberties with the source material to provoke a few raised eyebrows.

Divided into three parts and vaguely following the Grimm original, the story begins with Claire working at the luxury Swiss hotel of her stepmother, Maud (Huppert), who has been having an affair with the general manager, Bernard (Charles Berling). When Maud catches Bernard flirting with her stepdaughter, the Snow White plot kicks in and she has the latter kidnapped, driven out to a forest and assumedly killed.

But Claire manages to escape and then get rescued by the huntsman, who, in this version, takes the form of twin brothers (played by Damien Bonnard) living in a spacious country demure. There’s also a hypochondriacal cellist (Vincent Macaigne), his fluffy sheepdog named Chernobyl (who takes antidepressants at the behest of his owner) and a lovesick veterinarian (Jonathan Cohen) who occasionally swings by the house.

Like the seven dwarves, these quirky men are meant to add some joviality to the narrative, but they’re all broadly drawn and become much more irritating than appealing. Nonetheless, Claire begins to sleep with one after the other, discovering a sexuality she never knew she had in her — “I didn’t know what desire was before,” she says, flatly, later on — especially while she was living in the repressed house of Maud.

The latter, meanwhile, catches wind that Claire survived, setting out to get rid of her gorgeous stepdaughter once and for all. A few of the original story elements are tossed into the mix at this point: a poisoned apple, a mirror scene here and there, a scene where Snow White straddles a man in the front seat of his car, making passionate love to him as a squirrel watches through the windshield…. Wait, what?

Fontaine, a prolific director whose work ranges from appealingly middlebrow (Coco Before Chanel, The Girl From Monaco) to ambitious if flawed (Reinventing Marvin, The Innocents) to just plain problematic (Adore), has fun distorting the timeless tale into something stranger and entirely more provocative. But we don’t exactly have fun with her, and the bizarre sex gags and other attempts at humor, as well as an aesthetic reminiscent of '80s-era “Skinemax,” make the film feel like an offbeat trifle.

The 28-year-old de Laage does gives Claire the right combination of allure and innocence, and you can understand why everyone in the sleepy mountain enclave, whose population also includes a motorcycle riding priest (Richard Frechette) and overzealous karate champion (Pablo Pauly), flocks to her side — or in many cases to her bedside. (On the other hand, a party scene where Claire seductively gyrates in a red dress as the men look on feels closer to the infamous Elaine dance from Seinfeld.)

Huppert, a Fontaine regular, is perfectly cast as the evil stepmother, though her performance feels like such a wink to the camera that you never take it too seriously. In one particularly campy moment, Maud wears a scarf and sunglasses as she drives her convertible up into the mountains, puffing on an e-cigarette as if it were a big fat cigar. Is this supposed to be a nod to Hitchcock? To the way women dominate Fontaine's feminist reading of the Brothers Grimm? Or perhaps it’s just another gag that feels right at home in a film that mostly feels out of place.

Production companies: Mandarin Productions, Cine@
Cast: Lou de Laage, Isabelle Huppert, Charles Berling, Damine Bonnard, Jonathan Cohen, Richard Frechette, Vincent Macaigne
Director: Anne Fontaine
Screenwriters: Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine
Producers: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer, Philippe Carcassonne
Director of photography: Yves Angelo
Production designer: Arnaud de Moleron
Costume designer: Emmanuelle Youchnovski
Editor: Annette Dutertre
Composer: Bruno Coulais
Casting director: Pascal Beraud
Sales: Gaumont

In French
112 minutes