The Truth: where lies and deception are as important as truth in keeping families together

Hirokazu Kore-eda, “The Truth” (2019)

Ironically truth is the one thing going missing in this gentle French comedy about a family whose members use lies and deception to get and hold onto what they want and to smooth their relationships with one another. Lumir (Juliette Binoche), her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) and daughter Charlotte (Clementine Grenier) fly to Paris from New York when her mother, legendary French acting icon Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) publishes her memoirs. The threesome end up staying with Fabienne when the actress’s private secretary quits his job, apparently miffed that his employer hasn’t mentioned him in her book. During their stay, Lumir and her family accompany Fabienne to her latest movie shoot, a sci-fi number in which Fabienne is one of three actresses to play a character who is visited by her mother every seven years from outer space: the mother had originally gone into space as part of a treatment for an unspecified disease, and the treatment has the side effect of slowing down the ageing process so she remains youthful and young while the daughter ages back on Earth. The mother is played by Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel) who greatly resembles Fabienne’s old acting rival Sarah Mondavan, whom Fabienne once cheated out of a coveted role in a film by sleeping with the film’s director.

There are many sub-plots in this film, each of them revolving around some form of deception which ends up (or nearly does) unravelling. Hank, a struggling actor, deceives Charlotte by telling her he is working on a film whenever he goes to rehab for his drinking problem. Fabienne tells Charlotte that the turtle in her garden is Charlotte’s dead grandfather: this story nearly falls apart when the grandfather unexpectedly turns up alive at Fabienne’s mansion. Lumir has long believed that her mother always put her acting career ahead of their relationship and Fabienne, at least in the early half of the film, seems to confirm this single-minded focus by suggesting that actors must always keep their eyes on the straight and narrow path of advancing their careers at the expense of everything else. Fabienne herself seems to envy Lenoir in much the same way she envied Mondavan to the extent of killing the latter’s acting career; a tension develops in the film as viewers are encouraged to look for signs of Fabienne trying to upstage Lenoir – and signs there are aplenty.

Surprisingly these sub-plots turn out quite harmless as the various characters resolve their issues or conflicts, several of which apparently turn out to exist only in their respective characters’ heads. Director Kore-eda is quite the master to invert these sub-plots and show them as little more than characters’ own self-deceptions and rationalising as a way of overcoming their inadequacies. It is easier to blame someone else for problems one should be overcoming. In the process of dissecting various characters’ issues and conflicts, Kore-eda does a fine job detailing how one particular family’s inter-generational dynamics operate and serve to define family members and put them in their niches within the family hierarchy. Lies and deceptions play an important role in preserving hierarchy and reputation.

The film can be seen as a character study and a vehicle for Deneuve to comment on aspects of her own career as an acting legend and of her personal life and relationships. It seems significant that the role of Lumir was given to Binoche and not to Deneuve’s real-life actress daughter Chiara Mastroianni: the two have been in a fair few films together as a mother-daughter pair acting out similar scenarios. Both Deneuve and Binoche dominate the film: Deneuve plays a queenly role, seemingly unperturbed by what trouble she creates and given to sudden petty actions when the occasion suits, yet capable of regret (which may or may not be genuine; the character is an actress after all) when others remind her of the mess she leaves behind. Binoche plays Lumir as a perfectionist and idealist shocked at her mother’s deliberate manipulation of what she, Lumir, believes to be true. Hawke is happy to play the laid-back subordinate complement to Binoche’s rather domineering wife. The rest of the adult cast does capable if not very outstanding work.

Viewers may find “The Truth” rather confusing in the way the various sub-plots are turned on their head. Memory proves unreliable and lies and deception turn out to be just as important as one’s memories in forming individual, family and other collective identities. Even the film itself may be very one-sided; for one thing, we are only aware of the sci-fi film within the film when we visit the set along with Fabienne and Family, and the sci-fi film may actually be about more than just a mother being blessed with apparent immortality while her daughter misses out. A lesson might be taken from “The Truth” in considering just how much people, organisations and societies depend on truth and on lies, deceit and manipulation in defining themselves. In this, “The Truth” is very much of a piece with Kore-eda’s more notable work “Shoplifters”.

On / Off: a film on identity, memory and the consequences of inattention

Thierry Lorenzi, “On / Off” (2013)

This short space-exploration thriller film had been doing the film festival circuit for a number of years before DUST channel featured it in 2019. The story seems straightforward until the unexpected twist comes which explains quite a few puzzling aspects earlier in the film. Out on a lonely spacecraft in the near future, astronaut Meredith (Carole Brana) has a panic attack before she is supposed to set out on a space walk? The panic attack is severe and she just manages to inject herself with some clear-liquid horse tranquilliser; she then sets off on the space walk despite having a headache and the concern of her colleague and supervisor Cid (Arben Barjraktaraj) for her well-being. Quite what the space walk is for is never made clear. While Meredith floats about and goes off into a dreamy reverie, Cid goes off on a trance all his own in zero-gravity conditions while he’s supposed to be monitoring Meredith’s walk and making sure her lifelines are not disconnected. (One wonders where everyone else on the spacecraft has gone.) Inevitably Meredith meets with trouble, her lines are cut and she quickly drifts away from the ship.

Just when you think Meredith is lost forever, she wakes up to a stern lecture by Cid who has to explain (once again, I imagine) that she isn’t what she believes herself to be and that everything and everyone she knew has passed on. It seems that Meredith is fixated on the last things and memories she had just before some catastrophe, far beyond the scope of the film to explain (so it leaves out the disaster altogether), hit her, after which she had to be reconstructed completely – as a robot.

While the film may not look or play consistently or according to what most people would expect of human activity on a spacecraft – there should be more than two people on the ship for security reasons, people don’t go on space-walks by themselves without being monitored properly by the crew inside – it does put forward some intriguing views regarding the nature of identity and how memories and repeated behaviours define an individual. The way in which the real Meredith’s memories and behaviours have been collected along with her knowledge and experience and transplanted onto a database that is then placed into a robot which can then be exploited by the corporation or government that had previously employed the human Meredith may say something about how Western society regards people as commodities to be exploited. The horror that the climactic twist in the plot throws at viewers is in stark contrast with the serene and almost poetic images of Meredith during her space-walk. Viewers are left with an almost unspeakably cruel and horrific impression of what must have happened to the real Meredith that the robot Meredith is doomed to relive over and over.

Royal Madness: a fun cartoon on finding a new purpose in life

Mriganka Bhuyan, Romain Couderette, Eunbyeol Ko, Sean Lewis, Milan Salmona, Wenkai Wang, “Royal Madness” (2019)

Not one of the better offerings from the 2019 Gobelins graduation class but very stylish in its early moments, “Royal Madness” is a fun family-oriented short about losing one’s motivation and zest for life after fulfilling all one’s personal goals and finding new meaning and purpose in relationships with others. Long ago, in a distant kingdom, the king fights and slays all the dragons and monsters menacing his people in splendid stylistic displays of fighting in which the hero monarch and his frightful enemies resemble characters in an Indonesian shadow-puppet play. The king does his job a little too efficiently and before long all the monsters have been chased out of the kingdom. The peace that everyone has hoped for turns out to be the king’s worst enemy: with no enemies left to fight, he lapses into depression. His tiny princess daughter, remembering the former days of glory, cooks up a plan with his retainers to get the king out of his torpor … but the plan could backfire and put all their lives into danger.

The plan is daring if not very original – the retainers put a mechanical monster together – and sure enough, the king is roused out of his fug and goes straight into axe-swinging action. Eventually of course, he has to discover what is actually powering the machine monster before he accidentally kills everyone! The realisation dawns on him that perhaps he has been wasting his time yearning for a past that will never become the present again, and he must find a new purpose, one that will include his daughter.

The animation is very fun and exaggerated, with Disney influences, and the short proceeds very briskly with lots of fast and sudden action. A very creditable job, given that a number of students were involved in its creation, but originality is in short supply here.

Dejeuner sur l’herbe: a character study that skewers intellectual and religious arrogance

Jules Bourges, Jocelyn Charles, Nathan Harbonn Viaud, Pierre Rougemont,”Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (2019)

A droll character study of a scientist called Etienne initially dedicated to pursuing truth and logic, experiencing a crisis of faith after being stood up by a female friend at a beach and seeing an apparent UFO, and refusing to speak to anyone and to carry on as usual with his career for seven years, this film punctures both intellectual arrogance and the arrogance of religious fanaticism alike. By presenting its narrative through Etienne’s viewpoint, the short immediately captures and maintains viewer attention, steadily increasing the tension of the scientist’s descent into a raving religious lunatic until the clanger drops with regard to what the UFO silhouette actually was all those seven years ago.

The animation can be a bit bizarre: characters are drawn rather crudely with oversized heads and tiny mouths, while backgrounds and especially the movements of the sea and waves are done with much care for detail so the lapping waters and the shadows that appear and break up constantly over them look real. The characters themselves though are not very well developed and the animation and narrative rely heavily on the voice actors to make the characters seem more than angst-ridden millennial-born stereotypes.

While the narrative does have holes in parts, and the notion that a scientist or academic could be so easily fooled by a very mundane everyday object in the natural world – which in itself says something about how estranged humanity has become from nature and, by implication, reality – the film deals with its themes and the way in which the narrative develops and unfurls very deftly. One finds oneself sympathising and commiserating with Etienne while also laughing at him.

Protocole Sandwich: a likeable and subversive commentary on conformism, hysteria and denial in Western society

Valerie Bousquie, Josephine Meis, Antoine Vignon, Benjamin Warnitz, “Protocole Sandwich” (2019)

This very likeable and comic-strip-styled animation comes across as a satirical commentary on conformism, mass hysteria and mass denial in Western society. A group of rangers called the Sandwich Protocol are sent to monitor suspicious activity around an antenna tower installation of some sort in a remote desert. The rangers use handheld guns that look like portable electric fans to dispel apparent glitches in their world of reality. They use these guns on an elderly woman and her pet raven: the woman survives (so she’s real enough) but the raven fails the test and is packed away in a special box to be taken back to HQ. During a lunch-break, one of the rangers decides to check something at the antenna itself and discovers something that looks like a sabotage attempt. He is accosted by a strange man who is trying to tell him something and to demonstrate it as well …

Although at the time I saw it, the film had no English-language subtitles, the visual narrative suggests that the rangers themselves are employed to maintain an artificial semblance of reality and the elderly woman and the strange man represent threats to that particular Matrix. The strange man in particular is trying to convince the ranger that he and his fellow rangers have been deceived to believe that they live in the real world when in fact they don’t and the real world actually exists outside the artificial world their masters have created. This means that the raven dies because it is a real creature and not a product of the artificial world of the film. The rangers treat the woman and the stranger as though they are infected by a mysterious and deadly disease, and their desert world as potentially dangerous.

While the stranger ends up being subdued by the rangers in a black box and they leave the box in the charge of the ranger who first encountered the fellow, that ranger seems to have absorbed enough of the stranger’s ranting message that he appears ready to open the box and release the disruptive chaos that will destroy the artificial desert world and reveal the real world. At this point the film ends leaving the audience to speculate what the ranger might do: will he obey and conform just as he has always done or will his curiosity overcome habit?

The animation resembles a Tintin comic strip and the gadgets that the rangers in their special hermetic suits use to combat the dangers of the real world intruding into their careful virtual digital world are very comic. These weapons, the protective clothing the rangers wear and the triangular symbols on their uniforms are hilariously subversive comments on the extreme collective hysteria present in Western society that seeks to stamp out heterodox opinion and information and enforce a cult-like outlook and ideology. Even the food the rangers eat – sandwich triangles – shows the intrusive extent of their brainwashing. The colours are bright and call attention to the unreality of the world that the rangers believe is real. The glitches, representing tears in the virtual world (and suggesting how unstable it is), are beautifully done; in a climactic scene, they turn the animation into a gorgeously psychedelic riot of colour and imagery. As is usual in Gobelins shorts, the voice acting is superb and makes the action seem more real than it actually is.

While the plot will not bear a treatment longer than its six to seven minutes, it already packs considerable information about the kind of dysfunctional society that exists in its world and how freedom and reality are physically so close to humans and yet still so far away.

Dogs: a metaphor for the psychological and other effects of global war and violence

Mohammad Babakoohi, Jakob Bednarz, Benjamin Berrebi, Diego Cristofano, Théo Noble, Karlo Pavicic-Ravlic, Marthinus van Rooyen, “Dogs” (2019)

One of the longer films in the Gobelins 2019 graduation students’ batch of animated shorts eagerly awaited by the French animation school’s fans around the world, “Dogs” is a metaphor for the chaos and psychological effects of war and brutal violence on humans. The action takes place during World War II, about the period of the Warsaw Uprising. A Polish resistance fighter with a rifle (but no taste for killing) escapes a burning city and travels through open countryside in search of a new home. He sees a huge tree with a generous canopy in the middle of an endless meadow and walks towards it but is attacked by a huge savage dog chained to the tree. The man manages to climb into its branches but is stuck while the canine sentry patrols the area around the tree. Day passes into night and while the man is dozing, another dog sneaks into the area and is promptly set upon by the guard dog. During the fight between the two animals, the man is able to sneak down the tree and retrieve his rifle. The guard dog, having killed the other dog, menaces the man who must now decide whether to defend himself by killing the guard dog or be killed …

The beauty of the rural scenes and the cloudy skies, looking rather like oil paintings, belie the chaotic and violent conditions of the world in which this animation is set. The large tree in particular is portrayed as gorgeous and lush, and the guardian dog is vicious, even cannibalistic. Generally the live characters are drawn a bit more crudely than the background scenery but this may be deliberate: war may have dragged living things back to the edge of savagery, though so far it has spared some scenes of natural forest and grasslands. The scenes of burning cities at the beginning and the ending of the film suggest an unending cycle of war, brutality and violence as each new generation entering the world is dragged into this cycle.

The symbolism of the characters can be rather dense and multi-layered. Wooden as it is, the tree is a significant character perhaps representing a bridge between the hellish landscapes of the world and a better world where violence and war are unknown. The savage dog chained to the tree and apparently guarding it may be doing so on behalf of divine masters, so as to prevent ordinary human beings from climbing it and reaching out to the heavens. Significantly the man’s destination turns out to be a burning city – is it the burning city he left at the beginning or is it another city? – to which the entry is a gate over which a three-headed dog (in Greek mythology, this would be Cerberus guarding the entry to the kingdom of the dead) stands as if in triumph. Would the city have been on fire if the tree had not been on fire because of what happens between the man and the guardian dog? Does the city represent the Hell of war, of chaos, of mass prison / concentration camps, and of genocides?

For a film of its length, “Dogs” makes quite deep demands of its audience to ponder how war and brutality ultimately brutalise living beings such as the man and the guardian dog, and whether the man ultimately accepts his destiny to be a killer of humans (at the cost of losing his humanity) if only to defend and save himself.

Out of Range: a study of character transformation through personal crisis and breakdown

Cécile Guillard, Lana Choukroune, Yijia Cao, “Out of Range” (2019)

In the Gobelins animated universe, the most mundane incidents can give rise to major transformations in a person’s life, so much so that we can almost say that person has experienced a kind of death and been born anew. So it is with the sole character in this 4-minute short: Sue, a busy and harassed lawyer, is on her way to meet with a client on a rainy day. The expected meeting forces her to drive on a highway through unfamiliar countryside. The car breaks down and Sue has to pound her way through a forest with only her mobile phone to light her way during the encroaching twilight darkness and a steady rain. Along the way she loses some important papers, the phone falls into a puddle and goes flat, and she is bothered and hampered by annoying insects and a low-lying branch. She falls over and sees her reflection in a puddle – a reflection of her harried workaholic self – and ends up collapsing into an ocean that engulfs and deposits her into a sunny open-meadow paradise of rippling long grass under pale blue skies, the whole scene bearing an uncanny resemblance to country backgrounds in Studio Ghibli movies.

The film’s use of colour emphasises the different worlds Sue crosses through in her mental collapse: reality is portrayed in various harsh textures of grey and dark colours; the post-breakdown world is made up of soft pastel colours. Before her collapse, Sue is ill at ease with the flora and fauna of the forest: she trips over tree roots and mosquitoes and dragonflies bother her to no end. Post-collapse, Sue begins to wonder and marvel at the natural world around her and attempts to hold butterflies in her hands. The most astonishing work in the film though is in the flood that engulfs Sue and sweeps her away into a new world with harsh use of black and white imagery while she fights the rising waters but is later forced to succumb.

While the story is quite simple and is open to many interpretations, it never feels stale due to the strong character creation and build-up with an excellent voice-acting performance from Isabelle Guiard as Sue. You can really feel Sue’s frustration and slight sense of panic as she goes deeper into the forest and gets lost. Sue’s character is well-defined enough and at the same time generic enough – we don’t know her history and background but we can guess at parts of it – for viewers to readily identify with her. This film certainly repays watching.

Pour la France: emphasising the common humanity of two opposed sides in their potential for mutual understanding and violence

Vincent Chansard, “Pour la France” (2019)

Set in Paris during the so-called La Semaine Sanglante (The Bloody Week) in May 1871, during which time the French Army put down the Paris Commune government and ended two months of experimental socialist government, this film exudes energy and passion for its subject matter, posits a difficult dilemma in which personal ethics clash with one’s loyalties, and emphasises the common humanity of the socialist revolutionaries and the soldiers alike, both in their potential for understanding one another and learning the truth about each other, and in reacting in blind rage and resorting to violence and murder over mutual understanding. The film centres around an army sergeant, Mercier, who treasures a book (Victor Hugo’s “Confessions of a Condemned Man”) given him by a teacher back in 1848, and a revolutionary, Lorraine Mazin, who happens to be that teacher. After the French Army storms the barricades set up by the Paris Commune, Mercier and Mazin are reunited unexpectedly by less than ideal circumstances in which Mazin is one of a number of revolutionaries arrested and condemned to death – and Mercier happens to be part of the shooting squad. Needless to say, teacher and former student recognise each other.

Does Mercier go ahead and obey his general’s orders? If he does, he’ll be a hypocrite and he knows it; if he doesn’t, his own life will be in danger. By reading the Victor Hugo book, Mercier reveals himself to be a thoughtful man already dissatisfied with aspects of mainstream French society of his day, dominated by small, politically and socially conservative, even repressive elites and the powerful Roman Catholic Church. His teacher Mazin may be a revolutionary but she tempers her zeal with reason, telling her fellow revolutionaries not to kill the monks and priests (which they do anyway). When the two meet again, both soundlessly realise the unexpected ethical dilemma and crisis facing Mercier.

The film’s animation is forceful and energetic. Backgrounds featuring scenes of realistic-looking fires are unforgettable. Human characters are roughly and minimally drawn with somewhat exaggerated features, enough to distinguish one person from the next. Characters who lack self-awareness are portrayed with shaded eyes or shut eyes; only significant characters or characters with self-knowledge are portrayed with open eyes. This seems to say something about human nature generally, that in most societies (especially Western societies), most people seem to go about their business on autopilot and are lacking in self-knowledge.

Compared to some other Gobelins short films I have seen, this film does look very good and has a distinct style but the story it tells is not quite as powerful as those of the other films, perhaps because it runs like an excerpt of a much longer imaginary film and the characters are not well developed enough for viewers to care about them.

Hors Saison: a powerful character study of consequences arising from rash actions and interpersonal tensions

Nicolas Capitaine, Celine Desoutter, Lucas Durkheim, Leni Marotte, “Hors Saison / Out of Season” (2017)

Few films can portray character and tell a story complete in itself in the space of six minutes as does this impressive short effort from a group of 2017-vintage graduate students at the Gobelins school of animation in Paris. The story is set in a national park in the northern United States and revolves around park ranger Jude, aged about 50 years and perhaps suffering from career burnout as she tries to keep up with younger and chirpier work partner Karen. The sun is setting low in the west and Karen decides to hop back to HQ while Jude still needs to clean up a few branches cluttering up the road. With Karen gone, Jude gets a call from HQ to hurry up and something said to her over the radio rattles her enough for her to throw her radio into the thicket. On retrieving it, she discovers a poacher with suspicious booty in the back of his pick-up. While trying to arrest the fellow, he starts shooting at her and she fires back in self-defence. Having disabled the shooter, Jude calls HQ for an ambulance and reinforcement. While waiting for help, she peeks into the shooter’s shed – a decision that nearly costs her her life. Jude just manages to defend herself against the shooter’s partner – and then a third person appears in the doorway of the shed …

Quite a few themes establish themselves very quickly in the course of the film: there’s the obvious one of age, experience and perhaps world-weariness versus youth, energy and naivete in Jude and Karen’s interaction early on in the short which establishes a tension between the two. Jude’s conversation with HQ further reinforces the sense of isolation, psychological as well as physical, that the park ranger feels in the remote environment: an isolation that becomes more troubling and intense as Jude, alone, investigates a possible poaching ring involving at least two men who will stop at nothing to get their way. The consequences of Jude’s alone-ness, her determination to prove that she’s still fit and able, are messy indeed to say the least, and viewers can’t help but feel for her, knowing that she will have to explain her actions that will not only cost her her job but also warrant charges of manslaughter. The open-ended nature of the film’s closing, with Jude confronted by the awfulness of her actions arising in part from her fatigue and her stubbornness, made a powerful impression on this viewer and will certainly do the same for other viewers.

The animation, especially the background animation (with one breathtaking scene of a snow-capped mountain in the background behind a forest of fir trees), is well done: the backgrounds look three-dimensional though the characters are clearly two-dimensional and a little cartoony and exaggerated in some of their features. The villains especially appear rather stereotyped as surly sociopathic types. The most noteworthy feature is the voice acting with the actor playing Jude conveying the character’s tiredness, work fatigue and feelings of inadequacy when speaking to Karen.

This animated short deserves repeated viewings (in spite of scenes of violence and implied past violence) for its powerful story-telling and deep character study of a woman who makes one mistake after another.

In Orbit: a distinctive visual style in telling a rough story about survivor guilt

Soham Chakraborty, Hanxu Chen, M Joffily, Justin Polley, Julie Trouve, “In Orbit” (2019)

Similar to Gobelins’ 2018 release “Quand j’ai remplacé Camille” in its theme of survivor guilt, “In Orbit” uses impressive visual imagery to explore an astronaut’s feelings of guilt at not having been able to save her colleague and lover from a space accident that has left her comatose, and the astronaut being forced by memory, visual associations in her work environment, and the mere fact that she is transferring to another work unit that will involve working outside a spaceship to relive the incident and gradually accept it. The film appears to owe a debt to past Alfred Hitchcock films (in particular, “Vertigo”) and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in its ideas and images.

The colour palette of the film is dominated by blues, purples and dark colours which mirror the astronaut Sonia’s depressed moods (though red for danger and yellow also appear). In a number of scenes there is an emphasis on the huge scale and empty rooms of the space station where Sonia is currently resident, making her and her fellow travellers look very small and at times as much isolated from one another physically as well as psychologically from the guilt-ridden Sonia. Changes in viewpoint reinforce a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia as Sonia is pursued by her demons: in one memorable scene, the audience viewpoint does a somersault up to the top of the vault-like corridors Sonia runs through, following the lines of the walls, and then focuses (almost vulture-like) on the tiny figure running across the screen.

Even though all the action takes place on a space station, and the horror exists mainly in Sonia’s mind, this film has most of the necessary elements of a haunted-house horror film: the changes in viewpoint, the dark colours and shades, the suspense and anxiety, irrational fears and memories playing tricks on the mind. While the plot is rough around the edges and has no real resolution – we do not even know if Sonia is still on the material plane of existence when she finally meets with her lover – the film has succeeded as a science-fiction horror film in its visual style.