Gretel & Hansel is a psychological thriller filled with magical realism. A straight forward fantasy punctuated with moments of disturbing imagery filled with gore and the banality of evil. In other words, it is a fairy tale.
Oz Perkins has culled from the Brothers Grimm a deeply disturbing tale about a young girl growing into her own womanhood. It is also about the magic we find in stories and the power our belief gives them. Gretel & Hansel operates with a sublime sense of dark beauty in a way we normally only see in the films of Guillermo del Toro.
Perkins, who wrote the script with Rob Hayes, begins the story with another story. Gretel (Sophia Lilils) tells a fairy tale she has somehow always known. The tale of The Beautiful Child in the Pink Hat. Like all fairy tales, both the one Gretel tells and Gretel & Hansel, they have a deep sense of foreboding. Of something slightly off but how we have no way of knowing how until it is too late.
Fairy tales are more than true and less than fantastical. Perkins and Hayes imbue Gretel & Hansel with a dreamy if rustic feel. The characters talk as if from another place and time, which indeed they are, but with a tinge of our modern sensibilities. As one man warns Gretel and her brother Hansel (Sam Leakey) before giving them directions, “Beware the woods for they are full of wolves; who while very charming and handsome make terrible conversation.”
Perkins and his cinematographer Galo Olivares present reality as dreamlike and Gretel’s dreams as stark industrial minimalist realism. The world of Gretel & Hansel is autumnal and dreary. Wet leaves and bare trees littering the countryside. The insides of the houses are sharp angles and seem the opposite of inviting.
Olivares and Perkins create a world in which somehow the dreams are more depressing than the real world but the dreamworld has a more tactile realism to it than reality. The topsy turvy nature of this dichotomy gives Gretel & Hansel much of its fairytale-like quality and much of its resonance. The truth is surreal and hard to grasp. But the dreams are harsh and unforgiving because they are false yet filled with more truth than the world outside; much like stories.
All art is a lie either outright or by omission. Yet, art oftentimes feels more “real” and more truthful than real life. Thus we lose ourselves in these intricately woven lies hoping to find salvation or at the very least-direction.
A great depression is sweeping the land, crops are poor and if by chance they are bountiful, the farmers must give them to the Lords. Gretel is sent by her mother to interview for a housemaid position. The Lord of the house smiles and leers at her. Gretel quickly realizes he does not want a housemaid and she does not want the job he has in mind for her.
Lillis has eyes made for a silent movie. Perkins and Olivares take great advantage of this as they allow her to communicate so much with a glance or a glare. Her matter of fact tone is belied by her eyes which dance with fear and understanding that tomorrow may come but it will not come lightly.
Gretel and Hansel’s mother chases them from home in an act of cruel kindness. They are poor and can not spare food for an entire family and so she sends them off to be workers for the foresters. Walking into the woods one must stick to the path but it is so easy to wander off it.
The children happen upon a cottage in the woods filled with fresh food. The house and the food belong to Holda (Alice Krige) a woman who seems to embody the idea of what children think witches look like. She soon takes the two in as her own and sees the power within Gretel and begins to train her.
Gretel & Hansel is a sensual yet sparse dive into unapologetic straight forward storytelling. Perkins has a visual clarity which reminds me of Ingmar Bergman-not because of the similarities but because of how clearly defined and easy to interpret the images are. Like Parasite, Gretel & Hansel is an arthouse film easily digestible by mainstream audiences.
The way Olivares uses camera perspectives to affect the mood of the scene is so simple and pure it borders on masterful. Moments such as when Gretel is walking down a hall or through the woods the camera will be behind her swaying with every step. In most cases, this type of set up would be used to lend a documentary feel-to highlight a sort of faux naturalism. But Perkins and Olivare do so to imply the opposite.
Remember reality seems dreamlike and thus when Gretel dreams her dreams seem somehow more realistic. By doing so when they do this with the camera it is in what we know to be a dream and so the result is unsettling a cognitive dissonance, as it were, begins to form and leaves us feeling uneasy.
Robin Courdert’s score lends a haunting sense of beauty adding the final fairy tale element. Eerie and psychedelic the score has a melodic discordancy about it which seems out of time yet not out of place. Mixed with Perkin’s story the end result is something altogether oddly touching while deeply disturbing.
Gretel & Hansel reminds us of the power of stories and how they can cling to our subconscious. Gretel wonders early on in the film, “Where did the story come from? I feel like it as always been with me as if it was about me.” Perkins has reached into the bowels of fairy tales and found the essence which fascinates us as a society some thousand years later. He has found the truth and the fears we hold and realized that at times they are one and the same.