Charlize Theron’s clothes are awesome. Like the silver-coated small-animal bones strung together in a headdress than hangs down onto her forehead:

Also, the Dark Forest is really cool, and the dwarfs are excellent.

Otherwise, Snow White and the Huntsman is a big mess of over-writing and confused themes that looks great (terrific CGI, creative ideas behind it) but feels incredibly shallow.

Now, I could complain about all manner of things, like Kristen Stewart’s acting (my friend M mused wryly as we walked out of the theater: “I sure hope Kristen Stewart never gets stuck in a paper bag”) or the preposterous notion that she is “fairer” than Charlize Theron’s evil queen Ravenna.

But let’s not be small.

Instead, let’s complain about the writing, because this film is confused (not unlike Stewart, above). What is this film about?

The original tale, as it comes to us from the Brothers Grimm, is a pretty simple catfight faceoff between an evil queen who wants to be the prettiest and a good, innocent girl whom everyone loves, especially the dwarfs. Queen puts girl to sleep with poisoned apple. Girl gets kissed by prince, and their marriage ends the evil queen’s reign. (In one particularly horrific version I still remember from my childhood, the queen gets punished by having to wear a bewitched pair of iron shoes that force her to dance until she dies. I always wanted to know why, if Snow White was so nice and all, did she permit that punishment?)

In short, the original doesn’t really leave much room for a feminist reading unless you are prone to wishful thinking, or if you are a clever writer of fan-fic. Mostly it’s a tale of men taking care of the delicate Snow White — various dwarfs and princes and whatnot — while she talks to fawns and bluebirds and perhaps sings a song. Feminist it’s not.

Snow White and the Huntsman wants to turn Snow White into an action hero. Or perhaps I should say that at some point in the writing process someone said, “What would happen in she kicked some ass?”

The writers didn’t really follow through, however. Except for that one scene in which Snow White makes a very nice running & sliding move down a drainpipe to escape from Ravenna’s castle.

Mostly she’s dragged unwillingly toward bravery, leadership, and violence by helpful men. When the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor except with a Scottish accent and darker hair this time) helps her slog through the awesome Dark Forest, he slices off her ridiculously long gown to miniskirt/ thigh level to help her move.

So helpful to have those men around for their quick thinking, because no way would that have ever occurred to this Snow White.

It’s not that vestiges of a feminist vision behind the film aren’t still in evidence, but they mostly emerge from Ravenna’s mouth and/or her backstory, which are actually kind of interesting. “I was ruined by a king like you, my Lord. Men use women,” she tells Snow White’s father on their wedding night. If that seems like a kinky thing to tell your new husband, she follows it up by offing him in short order. Later, when she meets the Huntsman, Ravenna says ominously, “There was a time when I would have lost my heart to a face like yours. And you, no doubt, would have broken it.”

Of course, beyond this level of man-hating there isn’t much sisterhood. Mostly Ravenna spends her time sucking the youth out of pretty young girls … because the youth-and-beauty theme still predominates.

Helpful information: the film was co-written by three men with all-over-the-place resumés: John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, A Perfect World), Hossein Amini (Wings of the Dove, Killshot, Drive), and Evan Daugherty, who has no films under his belt at all.

Now, I’m not a robot: like anybody else, I’m perfectly willing to watch Chris Hemsworth affect a Scottish accent and get sweaty and dirty as he protects Snow White.

I just had a hard time when the Huntsman tells Snow White that she needs to take on leadership in raising an army to fight the queen, and she demurs … until that magical kiss raises her from the dead and she finally assumes the role of leader —

— only to give the Worst. St. Crispin’s. Day. Speech. Ever. Let’s just say that Kenneth Branagh will not be looking to Stewart to star in any forthcoming interpretations of fiery Shakespearean heroines, at least any characters that have lines that don’t need to be mumbled.

There’s also a very confusing plotline in which Snow White is proclaimed to be “life itself” despite the fact that she brings death and destruction wherever she goes. Oy vey.

In other words, whatever impulse motivated the writing of this film (that is, beyond the impulse to create narrative set pieces in which the CGI experts could make shit look cool) ultimately falls apart because the whole thing is a mess.

What I realized after witnessing so many potentially feminist plotlines dissolve into anti-feminist helpless girl and/or catfight scenarios was that this is the quintessential statement of what media critic Susan Douglas calls “enlightened sexism” — the film makes gestures to feminism to calm us down, to remind us that it’s not a retrograde tale like the original fairy tale, but it makes those gestures merely to brush them aside and assert the same old sexism as ever. Indeed, it sells sexism to women under the guise that this sexism is somehow feminist.

In the end, it doesn’t matter that Hemsworth is a hunky bit of all right, nor that the dwarfs are enacted by an utterly delightful assortment of great actors (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost,  Ray Winstone, Johnny Harris), nor that Charlize Theron makes the best bad guy ever, nor that her clothes are so great, nor that the CGI is so watchable.

What matters is that we’ve been sold another bill of goods in the form of that red apple, people. And once you take a bite, you drop into such a deep sleep that you’ll be mistaken for dead.

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Fairy tales are preoccupied with subjects so weird yet familiar that it’s no wonder we’re still thinking about them. At heart they capture a child’s view of the world: full of mystery, magic, and logics wholly concealed from us. The action in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la bête, 1946) begins, for example, when Belle’s father plucks a rose to take home to his daughter — upon which the Beast suddenly appears, all fur and aristocratic clothing and that somewhat dainty overbite, to pronounce, “You could have taken anything but my roses. You stole a rose, so you must die.” Plot twists like that don’t amount to morality tales so much as remind children of the irrationality of the universe: you never know what small act might condemn you to punishment (which is exactly what childhood often feels like). Fairy tales also love to draw stark contrasts between beautiful and ugly characters. I loved Cocteau’s beautiful, weird film — it’s among the very best films I’ve seen in the past few years — and I’m fascinated by its strange messages about beauty, ugliness, and love.

Fairy tales also tend to headline female characters. No wonder, then, that female directors in particular have turned to fairy tales recently — Sleeping Beauty has been made twice in the last year (by Catherine Breillat and Julia Leigh), Rapunzel was retold for TangledBreillat’s brilliant, weird Bluebeard appeared a couple of years ago, and then there was that unfortunate Catherine Hardwicke version of Red Riding Hood (read Stuart Heritage’s very funny response to watching the trailer at the Guardian website). Of course, these have required significant revision for modern viewers who expect their heroines to have motives beyond a willingness to suffer prettily. Fairy tale heroines are also kind — so no one watching Beauty and the Beast will be surprised when the lovely, selfless Belle (Josette Day) takes her father’s place at the Beast’s castle, with the full expectation that he will kill her for her father’s crime of plucking that rose. But don’t get too attached to Belle, because she’s not really the star of the show.

In watching this film you overlook Belle in favor of the Beast (played by French heartthrob Jean Marais, who also appears as Belle’s sort-of suitor, Avenant, and the Prince at the end). The Beast is gorgeous, tragic, and has the most beautifully expressive eyes. We understand that the film wants to contrast Belle’s beauty with the Beast’s ugliness, but one finds oneself increasingly confused by that contrast because he’s so much more compelling and beautiful — tormented by his own demons and his growing love for the slightly colorless and indecisive Belle. He asks her to marry him every night, and every night she refuses, believing she must return to her sick father. When he grants her permission to leave on a short trip home he gives her the golden key to all his riches, telling her that it proves his eternal love, and warning her that if she does not return, he will die.

The most endearing aspect of the story comes at the conclusion, which once again deals with beauty and ugliness. To cut the plot short, Belle’s good-for-nothing brother and the rejected Avenant plot to steal the Beast’s treasure and kill him. When she realizes their trickery, she races back to the castle to save the Beast — but she has discovered her true love for him too late. He lies dying for want of her. Yet at that very moment she gazes at him, heartsick, the Beast transforms into a beautiful young prince with chiseled features in a ruff collar, smiling delightedly at her. No wonder she’s disturbed:

Belle:  Where is the Beast?
Prince:  He is no more. It is I, Belle. [He explains he could only be saved by a loving look.]
Belle:  Can such miracles really happen?
Prince:  You and I are living proof. Love can turn a man into a beast. But love can also make an ugly man handsome. [She looks at him skeptically.] What’s wrong, Belle? it’s almost as if you miss my ugliness.

Of course she misses the Beast. This new grinning, self-important prettyboy has presented himself to her, and appears so pleased with his own attractiveness that it alters their relationship. We miss the Beast, too. The tale’s message proves elusive. Surely we were supposed to learn that looks don’t matter; but now that I think about it, the story features a character named Belle who falls in love with a beast, only to find him transformed into a French movie star. You see: it tells us that looks really matter.

I could go on — there’s so much to be said about the Beast’s castle, which Cocteau fills with disembodied arms that hold candelabras or pour one’s wine, doors that open on their own, and marble busts with eyes that open and heads that swivel. But ultimately I think it’s a film about beauty and ugliness — topics crucial to the little girls who read fairy stories and imagine undying love and princes and castles. Now, if only we had fairy tales about perfectly ordinary-looking girls.

When I was about three or four, my best friend told me that if a man asked you to marry him, you had to do it.  It seemed barbaric but believable, and I spent a couple of years terrified that some strange, horrible man would approach me on a sidewalk and abruptly demand that I marry him.  Do we all believe this stuff when we’re kids?

Ever since seeing Catherine Breillat’s retelling of the Bluebeard tale (“Le Barbe Bleue”), in which the husband hands his new wife a tiny golden key and tells her, “Whatever you do, don’t use this to open the door at the end of the hall,” I’ve been trying to remember what I made of fairy tales as a kid.  While 20th-century children’s books urged us to explore (Curious George, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Harriet the Spy, even Little House on the Prairie…), fairy tales demonized curiosity, the most human of all tendencies.  Fairy tales were opaque, mysterious — so much so that I wonder if Charles Perrault felt the same way back in the 17th century when he adopted the nostalgic title for his volume Histoires ou contes du temps passé (Stories or Tales of the Past, which included Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood as well as Bluebeard).  Was it the gore, the bizarre morality, or the novelty of these tales that kept my attention?

The director Catherine Breillat seems to wonder this as well, as this is the second of Perrault’s stories she’s made into a feature-length film (and her next will be Sleeping Beauty).  Here she inserts a version of herself into the tale, as a fearless little girl in pink gingham reading it aloud to her more timid older sister, while they explore a forbidden cluttered attic.  On the whole, however, the film takes us deep into the medieval past to tell an expanded version of Bluebeard’s new child-wife, Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton), a girl who actually quite likes her hulking husband, even though she has long heard the rumors of his missing earlier wives.  If Perrault’s tale was spare, Breillat fleshes it out to show that marriage to the wealthy landowner is a kind of solution to Marie-Catherine’s problems — her family’s poverty, her plainness compared with her sister’s beauty, her loneliness.  In fact, it’s because she is such a curious, odd child that the mysterious Bluebeard suits her.  My absolute favorite thing about this film is that it makes this girl’s motives (as well as her personal charm) more clear while retaining the weirdly fantastic and unknowable element of the fairy tale genre.  Frequent scenes of their eating dinner — gnawing together on an enormous leg of mutton, or eating eggs that match their disparate sizes, as above — emphasize the unexpected equipoise between them.  Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas) even appears uxorious, giving her full run of the castle and permitting her to dominate him in ways that are both surprizing and believable.  In one scene, she sneaks down the hallway toward his bedroom and cracks open the door to watch him remove his clothes at night:  he sits at the foot of the bed peeling shirts off his enormous chest, staring glumly into space.  When she closes the door and clatters back down the hall with a childlike exhiliration, he slowly turns his head toward the noise with a kind of tragic self-defeat.  Does he choose his wives because of their irrepressable curiosity — because they inevitably give him the chance to murder them — or does he hope each time that the new one will finally obey his wishes?

Fairy tales build strangeness upon strangeness, creating their own internal logic — and this is a genre that Breillat understands at a cellular level.  (One blogger has even used the psychoanalyst scholar Lacan to explain her work.)  Inasmuch as she fleshes out Marie-Catherine’s personality, she does so in a way that still holds the viewer at arm’s length; her shots appear so staged as to look almost like a puppet theater.  This is not the kind of film or set of characters that prompt affection and empathy; it reminds you throughout that you are looking at it.  In one scene, the little girl races up a circular staircase in the castle, followed by the lumbering Bluebeard; Breillat offers this as a series of takes from exactly the same point on the staircase, spliced together to look like she’s running upstairs; yet it’s so transparently off that you get distracted by the odd feint.  It skips abruptly over transitions that would give the film better continuity, but it’s those abrupt jumps that make it feel so similar to the original.

That unknowability lasts till the end.  We are left in that same odd place:  wondering what the moral is, as it is in no way obvious.  This isn’t a film for those of us who need to like a film’s characters or who get allergic to films that draw attention to its film-ness.  But I can guarantee that you’ll think back to those odd things you thought about as a child — the mystery of marriage, the possibility that a wolf might eat a child, the presence of fairies and demons and sleeping potions.