Anne Fontaine’s present-day female-sexual-empowerment fable “White as Snow” is not a Snow White story per se, although it’s fun to think of Isabelle Huppert’s character — an aging health-spa diva who becomes diabolically envious of her stepdaughter — as the wicked queen. This, one might argue, was a campy role the icy French star was born to play, and Huppert sinks her teeth into it, much as her scheming villainess hopes the pale-skinned Claire (Lou de Laâge) might a poisoned apple. But the differences between Fontaine’s stunt and the actual Brothers Grimm fairy tale distractingly outweigh the film’s semi-forced similarities, ultimately leaving audiences to wonder how this coy provocation wound up getting confused with Snow White in the first place.
The answer: Fontaine began with a situation more than a story, wherein a “pure” young woman (so perceived by multiple characters) discovers the nubile effect her beauty has over men. Rather than becoming a passive object of patriarchal conquest, the character, Claire, proactively decides to pursue a series of casual liaisons with whichever of these suitors catch her fancy. At some point, Fontaine decided that the magic number of prospects ought to be seven, which in turn evoked the number of dwarfs with whom Snow White demurely cohabitated in the Disney cartoon, and so the rather tenuous connection was born.
Add to that the jealousy of an older woman, Maud (Huppert), and the framework started to take shape — although the situation with the seven men is just plain confusing. Maud, who can be seen vainly checking her appearance in any reflective surface she passes, admires Claire until such time that she catches her own lover (Charles Berling) leaving pathetic messages on her stepdaughter’s voicemail.
Taking her (homicidally inclined) fortuneteller’s advice, as one does in such situations, Maud agrees to have Claire kidnapped, taken to the woods, and killed. That plan unspools — and eventually derails — in one of this ridiculous film’s more ludicrous scenes, shifting the action from city to country as Claire escapes into the forest, never really questioning how she got there or why she would have been abducted in the first place.
Rather, she stumbles across a not-at-all-dwarf-like man (Damien Bonnard), who brings her back to the cottage he shares with two other tallish straight men, one being his twin (also Bonnard) and the other a melancholy cellist (Vincent Macaigne, in the insufferable mopey mode that’s become his signature). All three look at Claire as if she were made of marzipan — an attitude the gamine bemusedly embraces, for it is nice to be desired. At least, that’s what Fontaine seems to be saying, as if in solidarity with Catherine Deneuve and the 99 other women who wrote the open letter against #MeToo defending “the freedom to annoy, indispensable to sexual freedom.”
Though Fontaine was not a signatory of that statement, its ill-timed message echoes throughout this off-putting film: “Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not … nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression.” Comparably flip and oh so French, “White as Snow” pokes fun at the age-old dance between dumpy men (is this what makes them dwarfs?) and a woman whom everyone wishes to seduce. If you are born such a beauty, the movie playfully posits, why not make the most of it? So long as a woman has agency — and the character of Claire always does — it is her choice whom she agrees to sleep with, which in this case puts Claire in a unique position of power vis-à-vis the others. In almost farcical ways, the men insistently and clumsily flirt with her, getting nowhere without her consent, while the envious Maud covets the sexual power that Claire so casually embodies.
In (limited) defense of the controversial auteur, Fontaine’s approach has always been what might be called “sex positive” (see her eye-rollingly earnest son-swapping melodrama “Adore”). But there’s no ignoring the tawdry tradition by which Snow White and other classic fairy tales have been co-opted as blue-movie fodder over the years (as in Rolf Thiele’s “Grimm’s Fairy Tales for Adults” or Polish director Walerian Borowczyk’s entire oeuvre). “White as Snow” doesn’t subvert this trend so much as soften it, ensuring that Claire is always in control, celebrating rather than exploiting her budding sensuality — which is true even of an early nude scene, in which the camera admires (rather than ogles) Claire’s snow-white skin under the shower.
Whatever pleasure viewers take in Fontaine’s rough reimagining will surely scale according to how appealing they find its leading lady, Lou de Laâge, whom Fontaine previously cast as a wartime doctor in “The Innocents.” The title there referred to a group of nuns beset by unexplained pregnancies, although this time, de Laâge represents the innocent, whose sexual awakening serves as a political act. In addition to Maud’s beau and the three cottage-dwelling dudes, she must navigate the lecherous advances of a randy bookshop owner (Benoît Poelvoorde, the most miscast) and his shyly respectful son (Pablo Pauly), the suave-yet-insecure town doctor (Jonathan Cohen), and the unusually forgiving local priest (Richard Fréchette).
That makes eight, for anyone who’s counting, but again, you’re liable to tear your hair out trying to map this mess onto Grimm’s original, if only because the entire Snow White connection seems to have been an afterthought. In closing, Fontaine leaves her audience with a weak feminist twist — that Claire doesn’t need Prince Charming’s kiss — while squandering the opportunity she has in Huppert. The actress is far too sly not to embrace the role’s arch qualities, upstaging her co-star in every scene they share, but especially during a key encounter on the dance floor in which she writhes and shimmies around her rival like some kind of venomous sorceress. On paper, de Laâge may represent “the fairest of them all,” but there’s no denying that this tale is unfairly skewed in Huppert’s favor, for no pouty-lipped, glassy-eyed ingenue can compare.