The first clue that Penelope is intended as satire is Christina Ricci’s mere presence as the charmed heroine cursed with a pig snout for a nose. For a girl who radiates indie charm and coy aloofness, the nagging sensation that she is playing fairytale princess sardonically is difficult to suppress.
She turned a similar trick in the Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer, except in that instance she had little choice other than camp. In Penelope, she more intriguingly straddles the line between sincerity and irony, which actually makes her performance strangely compelling, almost despite itself.
In fact, one of Penelope’s chief failings, to the extent that it is a failure, is that Ricci is underutilized, her hapless yet sweet character registering as little more than doodle in a costume designer’s notepad at times, and on a formal level, she is displaced as the narrative center of the film with a mixture of quirky supporting characters and their none-too-clever plans. It’s a better film for it.
For in no uncertain terms, Penelope’s chief thematic concern is displacement. The blue-blood Wilhern lineage of which she is a descendent was violently displaced when her grandfather married a commoner and polluted the cache. Penelope is the manifestation of his transgression, cursed with a pig snout for a nose and a bad case of fatalism. Only another blue-blood “prince” can reverse the curse.
She endures unrelenting humiliation as her mother (Catherine O’Hara) shepherds a stream of would-be suitors into the Wilhern mansion, only for each and every one of them to jump out the second story window at the sight of her (though really, Christina Ricci isn‘t so hard to look at, pig’s snout and all).
The Wilherns find themselves increasingly isolated from the ranks of their class thanks to Penelope’s nose, but as Foucault maintained all along, marginalization is the offspring of fetish, a dynamic that plays itself out when Edward Humphrey Vanderman III (a sniveling Simon Woods), another oblivious suitor, runs to the press with the revelation that the Wilherns’ carefully shielded princess looks like a pig. Edward is largely a villain for villainy’s sake, but he also offers up the film’s most pointed critique on the nature of taboo.
Though it is Penelope who is locked up in her room for most of the day, Edward is the most readily available product of a repressed, repressive patriarchy that lends Otherness its perverse power by seeking to control, relegate, and regulate it. Edward’s first-hand knowledge of Penelope’s physical deformity makes him privy to a secret of exotic proportions.
That is, Penelope’s Otherness marginalizes her at the same time that it makes her a more exotic possession—a rare commodity that the media later exploits in both positive and negative ways. It is no coincidence that Edward, the keeper of Penelope’s secret, is the most obsessed with denouncing it. Knowledge is power, after all.
He finds an ally in a tabloid reporter named Lemon (Peter Dinklage) who has been digging away at the Wilhern story for decades, and the two of them go to work exposing Penelope. They hire a wayward, gambling blue-blood named Max (James McAvoy) to infiltrate the Wilhern mansion as a suitor and collect evidence. Problem is, Max is neither who they think he is nor terribly interested in exploiting Penelope’s situation. He begins to fall for her, seriously compromising their operation.
Penelope herself has little agency in all this plotting, and the film’s structure cleverly mirrors this idea, displacing Penelope, the heroine of the story, at its narrative center with the trappings of her environment—namely the people in her life who actively supplant her interests with their own.
When Max declines to marry Penelope because he is certain that he is not the “prince” who can break the curse, Penelope finally says, “Screw it,” and runs out on her own, armed with only her mother’s credit card and a scarf to cover her nose. At this junction the story metamorphoses into another entirely, that of Little Red Riding Hood venturing out into the vast wood, except here she finds that it’s not so bad, thanks to people like Annie (producer Reese Witherspoon), who takes an instant liking to the shrouded heiress.
Jumbled as it is, this kind of incongruity is natural to the oldest fairy-tales, the juxtapositions of each distinct suite representing meanings of their own (much in the way film works, if you believe Eisenstein). Whether by accident or purpose, Penelope follows this same template, and really, this ambiguity of intent lends the film its curious charm.
By finally placing Penelope at the center of the narrative, the film both emancipates her and foreshadows the solution to her charmed situation. Properly asserting its modern sentiments, it forgoes marriage and the reliance on a male counterpart as a form of social security, albeit via a scenario that is clearly unacceptable as an ending: Edward’s father decides that the only way for him to repair the PR disaster he’s created for the Vanderman crest with his slanderous screeds against Penelope is to marry her.
Alternately, Penelope’s mother believes this development to be the break they have been waiting for. But Edward’s contempt for Penelope is so obvious that she can’t go through with it, opting instead to embrace her biggest liability and seek happiness on her own terms. And wouldn’t you know, this simple proclamation is all it takes to break the curse.
It’s meaningless to characterize these kinds of endings as predictable when they have come to almost entirely define the fairy-tale convention. Suffice it to say that Penelope’s happy ending couldn’t have befallen a nicer person. While director Mark Palansky allots ample room for supporting characters like O’Hara’s matriarch and Dinklage’s Lemon to flex themselves beyond the usual two dimensions, Ricci illuminates a hastily drawn character and ingeniously twists our predisposition to cynicism into rueful pleasure without and even trying.