Gretel & Hansel: Flop Fable

A triangular doorway is a doorway into myth and transformation. Transformation figures heavily into the Grimm fairytale on which this movie is based, transformation that shows who the characters really are. Hansel transforms into a bloated, helpless glutton, and Gretel into a self-reliant savior. Really, they are saved or condemned by their natures, as all fairytale creatures are. Nature makes their triangular doorways iconic storytelling devices – they contain all their hard truths. A good or bad nature is a feast for the writer of a fairytale. For a screenwriter, it’s a pittance. So is Gretel & Hansel.

The film begins with a tall tale narrated by Gretel (Sophia Lillis) about the origins of the witch. Her story is based on loneliness and cruelty; you may recognize it as the kind of story that gets told in the third acts of typical movies to give the villain a heart. Gretel & Hansel opens with it to tell you that it’s important to think of the witch first as a victim. This will only become more problematic as the movie goes on.

Though there’s nothing wrong with this backstory (at this point) or how it progresses to Gretel’s troubled life with her brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey), the fabric starts fraying after only a few minutes because of the lack of on-set directions and period or region-accurate training. Not only does Lillis make no attempt to sound German, but Leakey occasionally does, forcefully, like a schoolkid mocking a fairytale (“He gohje tu de markeet tu geet de veenershneetzel”). The Witch (Alice Krige) has another accent altogether.

The easiest comparison is to Robert Eggers’ The Witch, where even the smallest child felt immersed in the period; that film was a time out of time, down to every stitch and inflection and blade of grass. By comparison, Gretel & Hansel struggles for authenticity. The actors aren’t little forgers (it’s hard to blame them), but you get the sense that they’re selling you a forgery without knowing it. They’ve been made up to fake it.

The story is simple, but fairytales thrive on simplicity. The children wander hungrily in theatrically scary woods until they chance on the witch’s cabin and smell the feast inside. Where Gretel & Hansel falters is not in this simple premise, which could be extrapolated with enough style into a thoughtful essay on childhood, imprisonment, want, longing, or any number of essentials. These are the things that entered the consciousness of The Witch, another simple story, or even Oz Perkins’ own The Blackcoat’s Daughter, which was a small premise told with a complex style. Where the fairytale disintegrates is in how much Rob Hayes’ script insists on continuing to tell more story without adding in more character. The result is a feeling of desperation in every place that enchantment should be.

There’s no better example than in the narrations, which Lillis delivers with lifeless indifference. Plot involving these children being afraid for their lives gets pounded out by speeches, leaving them no room to “be there.” Gretel acquires distance from the dangers around her through the narrations in her head, even as the movie strives in other aspects for intimacy (the shots are relentlessly cramped, each one perfectly centered like a series of illustrations). She doesn’t feel involved in her own story. She makes it seem foregone.

By the end, everyone does. Changes to the mythology established in the film’s opening come in twists on flashbacks through more flashbacks, convoluting the premise by dumping information that replaces old information, rather than establishing and then developing it. Post-movie discussion about the plot of Gretel & Hansel for us involved statements like, “I guess she must have died, at some point?” and “I assume she must have gone there, since that’s where she ends up?”

This is not the same as meaningful ambiguity, which comes in the form of symbols enriched by a simple plot, rather than extrapolated by one. A triangular doorway symbolizing change can affect the audience with a feeling of enchantment, but not if the movie makes you aware of it explicitly. The Witch purposely changes Gretel and tells her and the audience this in scenes of exposition that bring the story’s subtext up to the level of “text.” Gretel & Hansel isn’t a movie where a girl comes of age through a trying situation. It’s a movie where a girl comes of age through a coming of age situation.

Narration isn’t the only way the story pounds itself into your head; narration, after all, can provide some clever context for a character’s understanding of themselves, in certain doses (Coraline, a movie copied by this one in more ways than one, is one example). The more pressing problem is that characters speak even in scenes of dialogue in a way that still sounds like narration.

A kindly woodsman, for instance, speaks in platitudes, crammed together like a traffic pileup, like he’s not done with one before starting another. I didn’t write them down, but it was like listening to someone reading a row of novelty plates in the order that they’re sitting on the shelf at the antique store (“Kindness is its own reward evil will always get its just desserts the end comes for us all eventually it’s up to us to plant a little good whenever we can the seeds of good sprout kindness wherever they grow the seeds of evil plant death and misery …”). This is near the beginning, when the tone is just being established. Momentarily, the film became its own parody, like if James Whale’s Frankenstein’s monster met the old man from the Mel Brooks film instead of his own. This kind of dialogue is how someone would make fun of a fairytale.

As the Witch, Krige burnishes – she’s her Borg Queen compressed by age into even more intensity. However, her role as a simple villain depended on Gretel to give it flesh and Hayes doesn’t seem to know what to do with this dynamic. Several possibilities are established, such as Gretel’s broken relationship with her mother – the Witch could have become a replacement mother figure and teacher, which is something they seem to have thought of but left only as a whisper. Gretel never seems to be seduced by the Witch for long, which could have been another good angle (she’s read the fairytale already, after all). Hayes seems willing to change the fairytale but writes the changes like he has the Brothers Grimm breathing down his neck. The result smells noncommittal.

Even worse, the ultimate solution to Gretel and the Witch’s relationship is so lame that I was waiting for the twist on the twist; it’s a “Wouldn’t it be cool if …” scenario played out like those “How it Should Have Ended” YouTube videos (“Wouldn’t it be cool if Gretel was actually a Jedi?”). I can’t think of a worse way for it to resolve. It didn’t even feel real.

The consensus on this film is that the visuals are fantastic compared to the story, but they suffer from many of the same problems – the problems are just more forgivable in a visual medium. The film’s style switches often; some shots seem to be from other movies entirely. One part features a lighting scheme more reminiscent of Beyond the Black Rainbow, with a harsh red light shining through the trees. There seems to be no reason to splice a jarring stylistic shot like this between the bleaker scenes more familiar with the era and setting; it seems like the visual designers were anxious to create interest in moments, rather than figure out one integrated style.

No problem in Gretel & Hansel is worse than that anxiety. The mark of a great simple film is the confidence to think up a simple story and let consistent visuals deepen it. Despite some great set designers working hard on that house, the director and cinematographer don’t seem to be able to decide on anything. Like the dialogue and its phantom accents, the visuals seem intent on making themselves known in the bluntest terms without committing to them. How do we know that Hansel is hungry? Rather than see the effects of hunger, he simply says, “It smells of cake and I’m unable to resist.” He’s reading from the open storybook. How do we know that the scene is mysterious? Someone got out the red lights.

It seems to be related to this anxiety that Gretel & Hansel also pays lip service to some timely political issues like rape in the workplace and female independence/dominance. Like the coming of age story told through scenes of coming of age, the politics in the film are injected disinterestedly, in scenes where characters simply announce the topics by name; this is mic-drop politics. They really feel like we wouldn’t be interested in their fairytale without a little pushing.

Due to this inattentiveness, I want to clarify how differently a theme plays out depending on the sensitivity of the vision. The Witch is a film where a girl discovers that in a society that can think of her as nothing but an evil witch, that’s what she might as well be. Meanwhile, Gretel & Hansel is a film where being independent is what makes someone an evil witch. The difference is huge: one places a period’s suspicions at fault for oppression, while the other accidentally justifies those suspicions.

My judgment comes from a place of anticipation for the director’s work and for similar great work done about this time period. As a budget horror title released in January, Gretel & Hansel is comparatively stylish, low on cheap scares, and ambitiously slow-moving. Its ambition, however, lies in its lack of appeal to a mainstream audience, not in its wealth of appeal to a more selective one. You can’t just move slowly: you still have to be going somewhere.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film: © United Artists.

Cast & Crew

Oz Perkins

Rob Hayes

The Brothers Grim (book)

Gretel Sophia Lillis
Hansel Sam Leakey
Holda/The Witch Alice Krige/Jessica De Gouw
The Hunter Charles Babalola

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