Monday Mini March Past 2: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

   I promise this post will be closer to the aforementioned 500-word limit for these minis (hah! We all know that won’t happen!).

This week’s Monday Mini March Past focuses on the film Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which hit theaters back in January and stars Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton as the title characters.

*Spoilers for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters follow the trailer!

Following a brief intro, the film picks up 15 years after the events of the fairy tale in an alternate, steampunk-laced 16th-18th-ish century and follows Hansel and Gretel—now famous witch hunters—as they hunt for the witches responsible for a number of recently missing children. Like my last Monday Mini, I won’t detail the story; instead I’ll focus on a couple of aspects that I found interesting in the film. With this post, I’d like to use the lens of gender performances to briefly discuss the uniqueness of the lead characters’ relationship and one of the differences between the theatrical version and the director’s cut.

This film works because of the chemistry between its leads, Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton. They are believable as brother and sister with just the right amount of effective banter and compassion for each other. There are hilarious scenes that play up humor to give the feel that they know each other personally, but there are also moments of darkness in which the two characters cling to one another, playing up the notion that their relationship is the only bond they have in a world that rarely accepts them. The best part of this relationship is that it is indeed one between siblings. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton are both attractive people, and, in an industry that rarely breaks generic conventions, it is refreshing to see the two primary actors interact and deal with nonsexual tensions. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t go into the theater expecting to see Hansel and Gretel engage in a perverse sexual relationship (though in different roles, these two would make a beautiful onscreen couple); rather, I did go into the theater wondering how these actors would create a sibling relationship. Would it be convincing? Does the film’s intent even necessitate a convincing sibling relationship from them? Ultimately, the film wants to be an over-the-top, stylized feast of hyperviolence (and it does a good job of it), but the story provides moments in which this relationship is looked at more closely. It shows that the typical “two hot leads have to hook up” approach isn’t always necessary, and different kinds of relationships can develop and work well.

Beyond the sibling relationship between Hansel and Gretel, the film portrays a range of character roles that are also worth mentioning. Even though the relationship between the two leads is not a romantic one, the film does use the “damsel in distress” trope. Gretel is kidnapped by the bad witch, Muriel (played by Famke Jannsen), and Hansel has to save her. As if trying to make up for this overplayed trope, though, the film portrays Hansel as a diabetic who requires steampunk insulin to keep him alive. The diabetes is a result of the fairy tale origins of the characters (the witch who captures them as children forces him to consume so much candy that he develops diabetes). The pathophysiology here is not quite right, and the two different types of diabetes are conflated into one, but I’m usually okay with the disorder getting any kind of screen time. By giving Hansel diabetes, his character is not quite the swashbuckling hero (though he is some of the time); in fact, his disorder is presented as a tragic consequence of the evil he and his sister face in the film and makes his character more vulnerable. At the end of the film, while battling Muriel, Gretel must save him from his disease as he goes into shock. This scene can be taken one of two ways: 1) it reverses the gender roles of hero and damsel in distress—Gretel must save her brother; but 2) it is a cheap use of the disease—it pops up at the perfectly wrong time to create more dramatic tension (though, this happens to real diabetics in similar ways often enough in reality). So, while the film uses Gretel as damsel at times, she does have a significant role and saves her brother at certain times as well, giving them, I think, a good balance in their roles with the exception of one particular issue that I will discuss later.

Specifically discussing gender in this film is useful because of its portrayal and use of women. As mentioned above, Gretel takes turns with Hansel in the roles of hero and damsel, but many critics dislike the brutal slaying of the witches in the film. All are played by women and some of the action sequences are quite violent. I can understand the complaints here, but I think this criticism is misplaced for a number of reasons. The witches are not portrayed as women; rather the intent (the director specifically says this in an interview) was to make the witches much more monstrous than their supernatural counterparts have been portrayed in other films and shows. We don’t see Samantha from Bewitched being bludgeoned to death. The witches instead more closely resemble the offspring of some ill-fated mating between the lycans from Underworld and the vampires from 30 Days of Night. They are supposed to be animalistic, instinctual, and savage.

Famke Janssen as Muriel in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Image Credit:http://www.aceshowbiz.com/images/still/hansel-gretel-witch-hunters10.jpg

Second, women play vital roles in the story. There are “white” witches who are not corrupt, who use their powers for good. Hansel and Gretel’s mother was one and, thus, passed her witch genes to Gretel. This makes Gretel a witch. When she is kidnapped by Muriel, Mina—a white witch—provides Hansel with protective magic so that his rescue attempt is successful. To say that the film is misogynistic for the way it treats its female bad witches ignores the fact that one of its leads is also a witch and without the help of another witch, our male hero Hansel would not be able to do much more than watch from the trees as his sister’s heart is cut out. In fact, Tommy Wirkola, the director, discusses the use of women in the special features for the film. His desire was to make Gretel every bit her brother’s equal. And I think this is the case in the theatrical version of the film. It does fall apart, though, when you watch the director’s cut.

I recently picked up the 3-D Blu Ray for the film, which includes the unrated director’s cut. I prefer this 10-minute longer cut, but I am a bit uneasy with one of its scenes. At one point in the film—say, halfway or so—the evil sheriff, played by Peter Stormare (who else?) takes over the village and hunts Gretel down (Hansel fought a witch on her broom the night before and ends up in a tree separated from his sister). While Gretel is searching for Hansel, the sheriff and his goons ambush her. In the theatrical version, they beat her up for a minute and then she is saved by a troll named Edward who protects witches. In the director’s cut, this scene goes on much longer and gets much darker. She is brutally beaten and then the sheriff implies that they’re going to rape her when Edward smashes through the trees and subsequently smashes heads. This scene is uncomfortable to watch having seen the theatrical version first. It is far more shocking knowing what was initially intended. Now, ultimately, this version is not the one that hit theaters, so I don’t know how to judge it. Clearly, someone felt the scene was too graphic for theaters and it was reshot. As far as which one is “authoritative,” I’m a bit torn. I do think the attempted rape is more a use of her role as a female character in that rape would make her as vulnerable as her character could possibly be. It’s a cheap way to build tension. That being said, when she finally finds Hansel, the attempted rape actually adds quite a bit of power to their reunion. When I saw the film in theaters, I wondered why Gretel tears up and hugs him as tightly as she does, and why his reaction is as strong as it is. These characters are beaten up throughout the film, so seeing her bruised shouldn’t be that big of a deal since they both spend the majority of the film bloodied and bruised. Knowing what she has just gone through, when they embrace and she sheds a few tears, which is uncharacteristic for her (she’s much more of the “tough guy”), it develops the relationship they have with each other more deeply in the director’s cut than the theatrical version.

Ultimately, though the film is largely a fun ride through a reimagined, hyperviolent fairy tale, it does a good job of reversing gender roles when it can. I don’t think we can say this film elevates gender performance to the level of pastiche—Judith Butler’s term (for more on that, see my Butler post)—because often the film simply tries to balance the roles (if we put the girl in danger and need a guy to save her, then we have to put the guy in danger and have the girl save him, too), but at least the film goes that far. This contention may not be good enough for an essentialist, but I think it moves a bit more in the right direction—again, especially when we consider the genre and such. And many of the good things this film does are because of the brother-sister relationship between the two leads, which already changes up the normal roles we usually see.

I’ll come right out and say it: I unabashedly love this film. I know that won’t be everyone’s take. Heck, many people might take issue with my reading of its use of gender, but that’s what theory and interpretation are for—creating discourse about our culture and its artifacts.

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