Clad in a scarlet suit, Isabelle Huppert approaches a mirror in the opening scene of “White as Snow,” director Anne Fontaine’s modern-day retelling of the Brothers Grimm’s tale “Snow White.” Playing widowed hotel owner Maud, the French star — as ravishing a screen presence as ever — studies her face, searching for the inevitable imperfections of maturity.
That unspoken concern with age is negatively reinforced in the company of her stepdaughter, quiet ingénue Claire (Lou de Laâge, Fontaine’s “The Innocents”). Little is said about the women’s relationship before the passing of Claire’s father, but in the present, the older woman worries that Claire’s amicable temperament and unaffected beauty have bewitched Maud’s current lover. The film’s major downfall resides in the lackluster central conflict, limited to a one-sided fit of jealousy.
Early on, Fontaine deploys an enchanting fairytale score from Bruno Coulais (“Wolfwalkers”) to ease us into the slightly heightened tone of the piece. In keeping with nearly all the unmistakable plot elements of the original fable, a jilted Maud hires an assassin to dispose of the fair-skinned damsel, in this case not a hunter but a huntress. While out for a run, Claire is kidnapped, but as we know, she survives. An isolated mountain town and its dwellers nurture Claire into a new life away from the rigor of the city.
The director mostly handles the translation from fantasy to a reality we can recognize with astute care, although over-the-top playful gestures, such as a pack of voyeuristic squirrels, tiptoe the film into more whimsical territory. Instead of dwarves, there are seven men that orbit her, each with their respective social or spiritual insecurities. Far from finding these untreated traumas off-putting, she is charmed. The absence of judgment or discomfort with their behavior further portrays Claire as a saint-like figure. But outside of a neglected talent for the violin, there are scarce details of her previous ambitions, how she felt about her dead father, or if she resents Maud in any way.
Fontaine’s main arc for Claire suggests the discovery of her desire. On her own terms, she engages in casual sexual encounters with most of the guys in the periphery. No regrets or attachment on her part, but for some of them, especially veterinarian Sam (Jonathan Cohen), the inability to have ownership over her time and body evinces a bruised macho ego. Yet this somewhat progressive interpretation of her self-determination reduces Claire to an individual solely concerned with flirtatious glances and carnal exchanges.
Laâge stretches her part’s sultry and bubbly traits as much as possible but surrenders to simply smiling through the advances of her tall suitors. Perhaps Fontaine’s direction dictated that there was no room for negativity in her portrayal, which could be why her one-note affability wears out by the first couple of one-night stands. Only when she discusses sin and the pursuit of pleasure with the local priest (Richard Fréchette) do we get a more profound verbalization of her newly found feelings.
Idyllic in a provincial manner, the locations in La Salette-Fallavaux feel removed enough from urban familiarity for Fontaine and cinematographer Yves Angelo (“Colonel Chabert”) to elicit a certain timeless visual magic from them. The winding road that leads to the village is at its most vibrant when Huppert, in another fashionable attire and constantly vaping, drives up like a runaway heroine from a classic Hollywood movie. A waterfall amid bright green and lush vegetation serves as backdrop for attempted murder late in the picture.
“White as Snow” doesn’t go far enough into strangeness, but neither is this an adaptation aiming for realism. Only Huppert is on that skewed mindset, while everyone else plays it straight. The combination of real-world themes and the intention to remain as vague as the original material in explaining certain beats never congeals. This tug-of-war between the two leaves the film in a halfway state that’s rather unsatisfying to watch, given that it never achieves tonal cohesiveness. In contrast, the silent, black-and-white Spanish revision on this tale, Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves” from 2013, where Maribel Verdú embodies a flamenco take on the villainess, runs with the make-believe more successfully.
With the right amount of malevolent charm and regal elegance, Huppert could play most Disney female antagonists better than her live-action American counterparts have so far. Had the film focused on the diva’s rendition of the Evil Queen, tormented by the notion of aging in a culture obsessed with youth and purity, the moral conundrum of her murderous wish might have carried more emotional heft. Not an ideal example, but this seems to have been the goal with the “Maleficent” films, where Sleeping Beauty has a supporting role. Notably superior to the material on hand, Huppert is almost enough of a singular reason to watch this movie.
Even as sexually adventurous as Snow White is painted here, the princess doesn’t much evolve from her uninteresting origins as a victim of someone else’s rage and the accidental savior of a group of small, lonely men. She is less passive but desperately needs greater intellectual dimension. Like the apple so fundamental to the story’s resolution, “White as Snow” is luscious on the surface but turns insipidly rotten upon the first couple bites.
“White as Snow” opens in New York City on Aug. 13 and Los Angeles on Aug. 20.