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Film reviews: Blanche Comme Neige, and Burden

by
31 July 2020

Stephen Brown reviews two online releases

Lou de Laâge and Richard Fréchette in Blanche Comme Neige

Lou de Laâge and Richard Fréchette in Blanche Comme Neige

ONCE upon a time, a young woman not unlike Snow White featured in the film Blanche Comme Neige/Pure as Snow (Cert. 15). The director, Anne Fontaine (Coco before Chanel), turns this Grimm story into a reflection on contemporary life, complete with poisoned apple and mirror. It is available on Netflix and elsewhere online.

Lou de Laâge plays the Snow White character, Claire, as she also did in a 2011 television production. At the behest of Maud (Isabelle Huppert), her jealous stepmother, she is taken into a forest. Saved by a huntsman, the girl acquires seven companions. These aren’t “dwarfs” physically, but emotionally stunted. Each makes her alive in some way, chiefly through Claire’s discovery of her libido.

Losing both parents has hindered her personal development. The men in the process of knowing her become transformed. Claire settles into a farmhouse with twin brothers. One has a troubled past; the other struggles to speak. A hypochondriac cellist boards with them. Claire is introduced to friends. There are a bookseller craving physical punishment, his son, unable to relate, and a vet devastated by a failed romance. The seventh “dwarf” is Fr Guilbaud (Richard Fréchette), guardian of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of La Salette. The priest appears to be a more intact personality than the others.

Given that the film makes much of people not being what they seem, might the priest himself be wounded, too? Claire is drawn to him without seductive intentions. He is kind and, invoking Jesus’s words, behaves non-judgementally as she pours out her heart. “I try to believe in miracles,” he says. Although not a believer, Claire feels, having come close to death, that she should be.

Being or, rather, coming alive is something of a Leitmotiv. When people acknowledge having missed the mark, failing to discover their true selves, a new awakening occurs. Guilbaud considers that the mountains draw this out. Also, those visiting the sanctuary are seeking reconciliation. Maud is the tale’s dark figure. So we suspect her motives in seeking his help in effecting a rapprochement with her stepdaughter. Part of Claire’s maturing is to encounter that fallen world that Maud represents without losing the transparency and purity that Guilbaud perceives in her.

The priest, of course, could be mistaken. Perhaps, like Mae West, she once was pure as snow, but then she drifted. This would accord with Bruno Bettelheim’s psychological theory that we need to go deep into the dark forest, make mistakes along the way, and grapple with our nightly fears and fantasies before re-emerging disenchanted enough to live in the world as it is. The moral challenge is not to give way, like Maud, to the negative side of our natures as we grow in holiness.

The weakest element of the film is in failing to show, even with so fine an actress as Isabelle Huppert, why this stepmother is so wicked; nor does Fontaine’s Snow White ever really leave the woods, but perhaps is about to. Despite others’ efforts, it only after the priest makes the sign of the cross on her forehead does she re-awaken.

 

SHOT in 2016, Burden (Cert. 15) has only just had a UK (online) release. The film is based on the experience of a real-life Ku Klux Klan member, Mike Burden, who was befriended by a predominantly black church. Garrett Hedlund plays this poor white orphan, who has been treated as family by Tom Griffin, the Klan’s local chapter chief.

Garrett Hedlund as Mike Burden in Burden

Tom Wilkinson as Griffin manages to avoid being a stereotypical racist villain: he is considerate of others, and runs his repossession business with some compassion. Griffin celebrates whites as God’s chosen ones by opening the Redneck KKK Museum. David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), the New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church minister in Laurens, South Carolina, organises protest rallies.

Initially, Burden is Griffin’s willing lackey. With a short temper, he plays rough, punching the living daylights out of an obstinate black driver. Contrast this with Kennedy’s preaching that perfect love, not revenge, casts out fear. His Christian faith is not simplistic: Kennedy engages with the engines of transformation. Challenging an instance of racial discrimination, he tells the businessman: “I want you to teach your staff to stop seeing colour.”

His ministry is predicated on finding and promulgating the means by which this can come about. If God’s grace works through Burden’s receiving the love of a good woman, then so be it. Judy has lockdown hair and a cross around her neck; and this image of dirt-poor existence transfigured by faith announces Andrea Riseborough as Burden’s twitchy and nuanced angel of mercy. Burden’s transformation continues along the way, with many a conflict, many a doubt. There is guilty sorrow for deserting Griffin’s family. Finding a new one through Judy and Kennedy is a baptism not just of water, but of fire.

As the film proceeds, there is little evidence of social change. An individual is converted to the path of love, but is anyone else? The writer-director, Andrew Heckler, might have given us more exploration of the reasons that Klansmen cling to their outlook. Kennedy ac­­counts for it in terms of the disad­vantaged white “trailer trash” who find status in degrading a minority-ethnic group.

Hedlund’s character is occasionally perplexing: viewers have to join up the dots between incongruous sequences of behaviour. This may be attributable to the version of the film now available, which is ten minutes shorter than the one that had its première at the Sundance Festival. Nevertheless, it is still worth taking the knee for a film that so convincingly demonstrates that you can turn an enemy into a friend only through love.

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