May 7, 2021

Spoguli / In the Mirror (Laila Pakalniņa, 2020)

Snow White (originally, Schneewittchen) has to be one of the most adapted Grimm fairy tales. From J. Searle Dawley’s 1916 silent classic, to Betty Boop’s bizarre adventure in Fleischers’ 1933 short, to Disney’s highly acclaimed 1937 feature-length debut, to pornographic subversions in the 60’s and the 70’s, to the grimmest of upgrades in 1997 gothic fantasy with Sigourney Weaver, to a silly teen rom-com, Sydney White (2007), to a 2012 overkill with four diverse variants, the most unwatchable being David DeCoteau’s direct-to-video ‘horror’, to sexy dramedy Blanche comme neige (2019) feat. the brilliant Isabelle Huppert as the wicked step-mother, the fairest of them all has gone through great many transformations. If we focus solely on 2012, we will see her getting into a knight armor and wielding a sword (Snow White and the Huntsman), wearing the late Eiko Ishioka’s gorgeously extravagant dresses (Mirror Mirror), as well as waving a muleta in a bullring of 1920’s Andalusia (Blancanieves)...

Laila Pakalniņa’s post-modernist rendition – a razor-sharp satire on self-centeredness and superficial body cult – sets the story in the world of muscle-building, or to be precise, in and around a contemporary gym ruled by the king of CrossFit. Faithful to the source material, Snow White’s mother dies prematurely, so her father remarries to a beautiful, but egotistical gym queen who, in this case, is obsessed by a certain exercise. Namely, she can do 50 burpees one after another and no woman can match her performance... until her step-daughter grows up and beats her in a burpee competition, effortlessly reaching 53. Of course, this defeat sets her on a familiar path of revenge, and the first step involves a fare-hunting taxi driver who saves the young ‘princess’ from being cremated as a rabid dog confined in a wooden box. Left in the forest, Snow White reaches a glasshouse inhabited by the Seven Guys – a band of hyperactive athletes and tumblers – and there, she will be exposed to several murder attempts and repeatedly saved, while her bereaved father will join mysterious sailors on a grief-suppressing journey in an absurdly whimsical digression.

What makes Pakalniņa’s exploration of narcissism so unique is not only the fitness environment, but also a cleverly pulled cinematographic twist (or call it a gimmick, if you will) which turns the film into a formally intriguing tour de force. Entirely shot from a selfie perspective in crisp and stark B&W, with the characters taking turns at holding the camera as if attached to their cell phones, continuously breaking the fourth wall in consequence, In the Mirror reflects our reality filtered through wry, and at times, dark humor. In that way, the ‘talking heads’ convention of documentaries which the director is no stranger to is admirably transposed to a piece of anti-illusionary fiction – a fantasy, no more, no less – and by virtue of a fine balance between telling and showing (often, in long takes), it keeps its filmicity intact. Everyone comes under a spotlight in a fragmented narrative that appears like a patchwork of social media logs sewn together by visual quips and running gags, and the largely non-professional cast joined by strapping extras adds to the naïf, tongue-in-cheek tone of the proceedings, simultaneously enhancing the irony.

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