The world is a crumbling piece of shit and there’s already so much said on that matter, so here I am to rant about Ever-fucking-After. It’s a hammy romp through the countryside. It’s a political take on aristocracy. It’s a genuinely funny romantic comedy. It’s a French countryside wonder to behold. It’s a fairy tale. It’s a feminist masterpiece. It has so many elements going for it that it shouldn’t work but it fucking does and I don’t give a shit who disagrees with me.
So let’s dive in.
The film opens a few generations after the setting of the main hub of the text, setting up the tale as a story of historical reflection – from a Queen to the Brothers Grimm, a premise alone is preposterous but camp enough to reel us in. It has the Queen of France, it has the Brothers Grimm, it has a Drew-Barrymore-ized rendition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s La Scapigliata, and it has the famous glass slipper (that on first glance reads as far more material than glass, but is still cool). It has so many ridiculous elements in the opening few minutes we can’t help but fall victim to whatever the hell this movie is about to do to us. What follows is two hours of hammy ridiculous feminism and to me it is perfect.
Drew Barrymore plays the Cinderella character – here, a fiery servant – with a fluctuating accent but with enough aplomb to sell it. I don’t give a shit if she screams some of her lines in a wavering accent because they’re delivered so well. The fun in this movie is how much everyone gets into it. Angelica Huston is having as much fun as she can as the cunt stepmother, Megan Dodds is so fine as the cuntiest step sister, Melanie Lynskey as the dumpy step sister is so lovely, even Toby Jones has fun with the little role he’s in. The dude gets knocked out by a jug while he’s pissing on a wall and makes it look fun. Even the thankless servants ham it up perfectly.
So there’s the story of Cinderella, and then there’s this. The stepmother is not only cruel and evil, but there are reasons enough behind it that you almost sympathise with her. One stepsister is the favoured(read: cruel, thin, blonde), and the other is the down-trodden and sympathetic(read: brunette, kind, slightly heavier than her stick sister). The helpful mice are the other servants. The Prince is a responsibility-resistant rebel. The fairy godmother is Leonardo DaVinci, complete with a cameo from Mona Lisa herself. It’s wild.
Filmed on location in France the film is fucking stunning, even a scene of the prince and a bandit falling off a cliff into a river doused in foliage reeks of poetic autumnal rain. The scenery packs as much of a punch as some of the best lines, and so effortlessly. Fucking France.
So Cinderebel is introduced to us as a mud-loving tomboy child with no care for rules and direction. When her new family arrives they meet her as a filthy mess, first impressions be damned. She’s a fiery antithesis to the corseted women of the time, and already refreshing. When her father suddenly dies, both Cinderebel and his new wife, Develica Huston, run to his side and with his final breath he declares his love for his daughter, not his new wife, and therein is planted the seeds of distaste within her. With the proper chance for their relationship to bloom, there could have been a chance at happiness for these people, but fate dealt a different hand and this immediately gives levity to Develica, as not just a nasty evil beast, but as a woman denied love by a cruel twist of fate and having to bear her circumstance. Sure, not everyone would treat their new stepchild like a dumpster fire, but with matters of the heart it’s not so easy to pass the judgement to the left-hand side.
Flash forward to a now of-age woman, let’s talk for a moment about Cinderebel. She’s a woman who lost her father and her freedom all in one day, who took her new life as a servant to her cruel stepmother in stride. She had the other servants to fall back on, as family-like figures. As anyone who has worked in hospitality knows, even the worst shifts with the most fucked up customers is fully bearable if you have mates on shift. She’s just making the best of a bad situation. She falls asleep reading in front of the fire not because she’s lazy and gross, but because she’s just more at home with the fading embers of freedom than she is with the fiery inferno of aristocracy.
While picking apples in the orchard at dawn, she has an encounter with a man stealing her father’s horse. She doesn’t even blink an eyelid at the beating down a thief on her father’s property, even if it was the Prince. She hurled that apple at him like it was her phone number and he was the last hot dude leaving the bar. She begs for his forgiveness but we already know she doesn’t give a shit about him and what he thinks of her. She woke up by a fireplace and spent her morning collecting apples in the French countryside, she doesn’t need his opinion. In the time he’d brushed his royal hair she’d already eaten, prayed and loved her way into a sense of self Julia Roberts could only dream of.
The adult family dynamic is set up over breakfast, where we see Develica Huston Sophie’s-Choice her daughters over eggs. The cunt daughter, Becky With the Side-Eye, has a fit about nothing because she has no problems; the other daughter, Melanie Lynskey’s JosieGrossie, politely offers her two-cents by regurgitating her mother’s advice that is immediately slapped back, showing both an intelligent understanding of educative properties and also an unreciprocated level of respect for her mother; the servants basically roll their eyes at the morons they’re enslaved to; and poor Cinderebel, fresh from her victory against the handsome but home-invadey prince, bears all of the scorn of her oppressive matriarch like water off a duck’s back. The scene is set and from here we go.
After beating off the thieving royal, she takes the compensative coin he patronisingly drops at her feet, feeds her horrible family, dresses up as a courtier and invades the upper-class slave traders demanding the freedom of Old M8(her fellow servant/father figure) who was sold to pay a debt. She’s in way over her head and makes a fool of herself but not a shred of a second goes by that she wavers in her conviction, brandishing Thomas More quotes like a Julia Gillard in Parliament, winning over the rubbernecking approval of the onlookers – who are clearly desperate for some hot fresh tea in the tepid tray of court. The prince again reappears and engages her learned rhetoric to which she easily disputes, lighting a fire within his complacent soul.
“A servant is not a thief, your Highness, and those who are cannot help themselves”. Shocked, he begs her to elaborate, to which she effortlessly acquiesces, “If you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners corrupted from infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded, sire, but that you first make thieves and then punish them?”. It is an abridged quote from More’s Utopia(the last book her father gave her before he died), but a powerful one nonetheless. That something this leftist appeared in a Cinderella adaptation from the late 90s is breathtaking. It’s far more intelligent than this hammy romp first appeared, and is so fucking welcome it’s not funny. Where has this discourse been hiding? More, more, (Thomas)More, I say!
She follows up by saying that “A country’s character is defined by its ‘everyday rustics’, as you call them. They are the legs you stand on and that position demands respect”. This debate on classism is so rarely found in film, especially in a fairy tale. This woman is unstoppably fragrant with justice.
He nibbles at the embers of her attack, “Am I to understand that you find me arrogant?”, to which she, in front of his people, simply retorts, “You gave one man back his life but did you even glance at the others?”. With that, she absconds from the narrative that she so clearly won, leaving him halfway through a debate match with nowhere to go, giving him only a name – her mother’s – to satiate his curiosity. The resulting scene that follows, of the servant, treated as property, returned to the arms of his wife(both older than time itself and then some), is so joyous and warming you can feel it in your core. The fruits of her actions in this one act show just how powerful standing up against oppression can be.
A Ball is in the works and the ladies are aflutter. The Prince and Cinderebel have another chance encounter (with the aid of a water-walking Da Vinci). They argue passionately about their station, continuing their debate from before with the kind of chemistry that dreams are made of. He, following her lead that she is a person of noble-blood, says, “You spout the ideals of a utopian society and yet you live the life of a courtier”, to which she snaps back, “And you own all the land there is yet you take no pride in working it”. This flirtatious discourse is intoxicating. She says to him, “You have everything, and still the world holds no joy; and yet you insist on making fun of those who would see it for its possibilities”. Is this even a fairy tale anymore? Fuck me the fuck up I’m so here for this. His response is a baffled, “How do you do it? Live each day with this kind of passion? Don’t you find it exhausting?”. The truth is, it is fucking exhausting living with the fires of justice but only because the idle complacency of those benefitting inequality is such an impenetrable force to combat. She’s pissed off, and angry and doesn’t give a shit who hears it – royalty or not, man or not. She doesn’t even need an audience she could be screaming into a void it flows from her so. Her heart isn’t pining for the love a man it’s pining for freedom, and therein lies the power of this film. To have a female protagonist tread these waters in a flood of tired heartache is fucking cool.
The Prince’s plight as the most single dude on this love island continues with women fawning over him playing tennis. He laments the game but knows the role he has to play. I only mention this scene because Becky gets a great line in when she dives into the role of ball boy at Wimbledon and the Prince says to her, “You’re looking well, Marguarite”, to which she cooly replies, “You are welcome to look, your Highness”. Fucking smooth. Say what you will, the girl got game.
I love when you know a villain is approaching before they even say a word. In a marketplace, we are introduced to a slimeball intent on acquiring Cinderebel, (or as he refers to her – the best, but most poorly-tended soil in the province. Ughhhhhhhhh). We know he’s a bad guy cos he has the teeth of a man no woman would willingly engage with, who would definitely wear a MAGA hat if one were handy. His presence is seemingly inconsequential, but he’s gross enough to leave an impression. Like herpes.
Then there’s a scene between Develica and Cinderebel that speaks wonders. It’s a seemingly innocuous moment between woman and servant that turns to reflection and shifts to the closest thing they get to a mother-daughter moment. Develica is casually cruel in that way that abusers can be, but softens when recalling her life with her own mother – a Mommie-Dearest type who demanded perfection – and why she expects nothing less from her own children. This could have just been an expository moment but Angelica Huston is so good at what she does we almost feel for this horrible woman. She cracks a little when looking at Cinderebel, saying that she has so much of her father in her, but catches herself and finishes with a jab about how it’s only because her features are so masculine. It’s a great scene, pulsing with the poor girl’s desire for a mother in her life and Develica’s shallow pain ebbing to the surface. That she can recall his memory with pathos shows that she did care for this child’s father, and that she isn’t heartless – just fractured. It makes her villainy that much more palpable.
Through some fun hijinks Cinderebel and the Prince get another day to flirt and argue. He takes her to a monastery nearby that is filled with texts(having noted that she refreshingly enjoys the reading of the books) and she tears down his walls a little further with her ease of self. She recalls a memory of her father and he recoils, shocked, saying “You have more conviction in one memory than I have in my entire being”. This man is so fucked. By this point he’s as in love with her as we are, and yet it isn’t until the next scene that we see her true power.
Taking a shortcut through the woods after their carriage derails, Cinderebel takes off her clothes and in only her undergarments climbs a cliff to navigate their way back, visible undies be damned. While she’s busy carrying the Prince through every leg of this amazing race, he gets attacked by bandits and they take him prisoner. She climbs down and is having absolutely none of that, so bargains a deal with them – they let her leave, promising that she can take anything she can carry. She ensures she has their word on this and, still in her undies mind you, casually hoists the Prince over her shoulders and goes to wander off, thanking the stars that all those years of hard labour are finally paying off. The bandits are as enraptured by this as we are and invite them back to their cave for kick-ons. It’s such a fun scene, recalling the legend of the Loyal Wives of Weinsberg – a great piece of history that, whether true or not, is a fantastic yarn. It is in the confines of bandit wine and firelight that the two have their first kiss. Goals.
Cinderebel’s punishment for her late-night partying is to lose her dead mother’s gown and be denied entry to the Ball. Her hungover-self straight up punches her cunt sister in the face, but at the cost of getting Marie Kondoed of her only possession in the world. It’s a cruel scene that never fails to rip me open, and so masterfully done. She’s not even pretend-oppressed anymore, she’s full-on whipped and bled dry.
There’s such a nice scene that follows here that could be so easily overlooked, that I always watch with awe. While Melanie Lynskey doesn’t have the most lines as poor JossieGrossie, she makes every second count. Here, she is tending to the lashing-wounds of Cinderebel’s back, and there are enough pauses between the blinks of dialogue that the brevity of what is being said is so much richer than on paper. She is so wonderful to watch, and her arc is a joy to be part of. Her final line in the film is something I quote all the time, and I even wrote it into a play. I just think she’s so fucking cool.
Meanwhile, Becky, through some scheming that Develica concocts with her juicy little henchmen ToboboJoneso, has acquired some tea time with the Queen. The comedy of the scene (her palming off her black eye as a result of saving a baby from a runaway horse, the fit with the ‘bee’) contrasts so well with the fact that the mystery of the Prince’s affections is unveiled and the gears start really shifting in this fucked up family.
The thing is, you can’t be mad at any of these women and you fully get where they’re coming from; Develica just wants to reclaim her social status in life; Becky just wants to be the Kween she has always been told she was; Cinderebel just wants to fracture the stoic social norms, and JossieGrossie just wants some fucking air time.
So Cinderebel tries to come clean to the Prince but he just can’t stop pouring out his heart to her and she falters under the weight of his affection. Like a fan of this film, he is enraptured, lost completely and can’t shut the fuck up about it. She’s trying to do the right thing and still even in a pool of love is she silenced. Develica confronts Cinderebel when she returns and the jig is up. “What bothers you more step-mother: that I am common, or that I am competition?”. She then gets locked up in the cellar for her deceit, while the others get ready for the Ball. Sweet JossieGrossie tries to intervene by saying, “Mother, it’s only a Ball”, to which she gets, “Yes, and you’re only going for the food”. Oof.
The Prince is told some bullshit and is heartbroken. Old M8 begins a plot to get her out, because the downtrodden always have each other’s backs. It’s the law. They end up enlisting the help of Da Vinci (who arrives to the other servants clawing at the lock on the cellar door, plucks the bolts from the hinges and declares to the incredulous others, “Yes, I shall go down in history as the man who opened a door”) is liberated from her lush French villa prison cell. Finally beaten down by the bullshittery of it all, she says to Da Vinci, “a bird may love a fish Signore, but where would they live?”, to which he says, “Then I shall have to make you wings”. Polymath me the fuck up GrandaddyVinci.
The Ball gives us life in a world when oppression doesn’t – there’s drama, deceit, reveals, and Cinderebel looking fucking bomb.com.org.co.fr losing both her man and her shoe. Develica plays a heavy-handed metaphor by ripping off one of Cinderebels wings, but at least on her way out Cinderebel gets to whip her in the face with her remaining one. Fool, even with one clipped wing a bird can still beat.
After the most public display of disgrace France has to offer, Cinderebel is defeated and throws herself into her work, but her conscientious efforts are for nought, as she receives the scalding of a lifetime from Develica. “You are the only mother I have ever known. Was there a time, even its smallest measurement, that you loved me at all?”, she pleads. Without missing a beat, Develica claps back with a casual, “How can anyone love a pebble in their shoe?”. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. Cinderebel then ran straight to Chemist Warehouse for some burn cream. Develica, not yet done with tearing down this poor girl, sells her feisty arse to the gross dude with the teeth from earlier, reminding us that no matter how hard you fight there’s always a dude with poor dental hygiene ready to fuck you up. And this leads to my absolute favourite scene.
The prince agrees to the arranged marriage to Spain that he had been avoiding all film, and settles in for his new life marrying wealthy because poor people are gross. (As an aside, the image of Develica and Becky in mourning outfits at the wedding is stunning) Then, when he realises at the alter that his new bride is also in love with a poor person, and that loving a poor person is ok because poor people are people too, decides that he has straight up had it with this fuckery and plans to rescue his love from her enslaved doom. Little does he know that Cinderebel doesn’t fucking need his help thank you very much. Lass done fucked up society with the fires within her, and using her wits and some quick sword-work she apparently inherited from her father, she manages to free herself from tooth-gate. As she emerges from the gross dude’s prison of bad vibes, the Prince arrives to save the day. She takes stock of her position, looking back at the gross hole(only metaphorically, it’s a fucking chateau) she came from and the power it took for her to escape. Looking like a hot mess but feeling like a hot yes, she walks up to him and simply says, “What are you doing here?” Drew’s delivery of this line is so perfect, it sums up her character so completely. She’s had it. She’s been through the wringer and doesn’t have time for your performative justice. She doesn’t need anyone to save her because she’s fucking incredible on her own. Thank you very much. She accepts the Prince’s proposal then and there, not because she’s a woman that needs saving, but because he fits into the next stage her vision board. Her getting the man is inconsequential. She left that courtyard a free woman, and we know marriage is not going to change that, but some royal coin can’t hurt.
The comeuppance of Develica and her cunt daughter is so deliciously set up that it’s almost hard not to feel bad for them. They get called before the court, and both get fresh new arseholes ripped to them in a way that their precious shitfunnels could never dream. Develica then remembers she has another daughter and tries to get her to back her up, to which JosieGrossie says, with one of the great final character lines in film, “Of course not Mother, I’m only here for the food”. EAT IT.
By the time we get to the conclusion (back to the Queen and the Brothers Grimm that we completely forgot were part of the film), we are done. The full gamut of emotions have been felt and our hearts are fluttering with fresh blood cells, awakened by Cinderebel and her journey. The film may be rife with anachronisms and is silly and stupid but is done so well you forgive any of it. Extras could have been walking around rocking Beats by Dre and I wouldn’t have given a shit. The location filming, the sweeping score, the gusto of everyone in front of the camera paints a painting so luminous it outlives any shortcomings the film may have. The film moves quickly, but never feels rushed. The way so much is woven together is masterful, as the whole film feels like a breath of fresh air when it could feel like a stifled fart. It’s a joy, and in a world where joy is hard to find, a re-watch is a welcome commodity in this schedule of doom we’ve been served.
Watching this film reminds me of one of my favourite poems – the title of Fiona Apple’s second album, which I will just leave here –
“When the pawn hits the conflicts he thinks like a king.
What he knows throws the blows when he goes to the fight
And he’ll win the whole thing ‘fore he enters the ring
There’s no body to batter when your mind is your might
So when you go solo, you hold your own hand
And remember that depth is the greatest of heights
And if you know where you stand, then you know where to land
And if you fall it won’t matter, cause you’ll know that you’re right”
Fighting the power never tasted so sweet.
That is all.