Parfum Fraise: a short and terse film on the impossibility of escaping violence

Alix Arrault, Martin Hermane, Samuel Klughertz, Jules Rigolle, “Parfum Fraise” (2017)

You can renounce a lifetime of crime and violence, and try to live a quiet life away from trouble, but eventually your past creeps up on you, you lash out unthinkingly, and you end up having to live with long-lasting consequences of your impulsive actions. Moreover your descendants have to live with the consequences too. This is the premise of this surprisingly powerful little film noir “Parfum Fraise”. Former yakuza hit-man Makoto tries to turn over a new leaf after losing his wife in a gangland shoot-out, devoting his attention to bringing up their young son. Kazuki loves his superhero toy and the movie featuring it in action, and strawberry ice-creams. A visit to an ice-cream vendor late at night in a secluded neighbourhood (what?!) leads to an unexpected encounter with two strange men who appear to be menacing Kazuki by drawing out two suspicious objects from inside their jackets …

Habit overtakes Makoto and before you know it, the ice-cream vendor is calling the police straight away and Kazuki comes to realise that his father is not all that he seems. Father and son seem destined to be separated forever as the police siren in the distance increases in volume. As is often the case with Gobelins shorts, the film has an open ending and viewers are left to muse on what might happen to Kazuki.

The animation is well done, with three-dimensional urban backgrounds and lots of contrasts between electric light and city shadows, and the voice-acting establishes Makoto and Kazuki as having a close though sometimes fraught relationship. Kazuki learns there are some limits he cannot cross though he does not yet understand why (until the confrontation with the men). The plot is terse and moves quickly, with the result that the film seems longer (it features two distinct time periods with Kazuki as a baby and then as a kindergarten-age child) than its six minutes’ run.

The city is a major character in this film: during the day, it seems pleasant and fun enough; at night, it is brooding and not a little sinister. Its character mirrors Makoto’s character and the realisation that things are not always what they seem to be on the surface is the start of Kazuki’s growing-up and loss of childhood innocence.

J’attends la nuit: a little masterpiece full of ambiguity and stunning animation

Arthur Chaumay, “J’attends la nuit” (2018)

A delightfully ambiguous and dark short, with stunning animation that looks so realistic and which perfectly captures the atmosphere of a sultry afternoon that turns into an evening fraught with intense desire and inner turmoil at what may erupt: this is student animator Arthur Chaumay’s little masterpiece “J’attends la nuit”. Two young men spend the afternoon and evening together, first at a cafe and then by the side of a picturesque lake; one of the young men who remains nameless has a wound on his hand that attracts the attention of a fly. The nameless protagonist is caught between answering his mother’s texting on his mobile phone, of which said texts start to come more frequently and urgently as the evening progresses, and his own feelings for his friend Damien, who is equally attracted to him. As his sexual feelings become stronger, the wound on his hand breaks out afresh and the fly moves closer to the wound …

What makes this film so effective – apart from the voice acting which is intimate yet very casual and sounding very fresh in the way that French-language conversation often sounds casual, relaxed and fresh as if everyone involved had just got up ready and raring to go for fresh coffee, the minimal expressions of the characters with their sideways looks at each other, and the shots of a hand in shadow with the weeping wound and the fly crawling over to it inserted into shots of the two men about to kiss – is the way in which the simple plot is so minimally laid out that it invites at least two completely different yet valid interpretations. In one interpretation, the unnamed protagonist is secretly ashamed of his latent homosexuality or bisexuality, perhaps due to a conservative family upbringing that regards such sexuality as abhorrent or, on the contrary, being overly attached to his mother (as maybe implied by the constant messages she leaves on his phone), and the wound represents his self-loathing with the fly symbolising both his desire and sexual urges, and the fear of disease that might result from giving in to his desire and urges. This interpretation however does not account for Damien’s later disappearance and the protagonist deleting his social media link to Damien on his phone which suggests they will not see each other anymore. A second interpretation is that the protagonist is a cannibal monster that preys on human flesh or blood, and the fly represents his hidden monster subconscious id that assumes dominance over the protagonist when night falls; this interpretation explains Damien’s later disappearance, the protagonist’s retching and vomiting blood and his self-disgust and loathing, and his mother’s texting, as she may be aware of his double nature. Indeed the mother may have sent the son on a hunting mission that he abhors, to find a human for their whole family to feast on.

Whichever interpretation viewers prefer, whether complicated or outlandish, it at least acknowledges the subtle nature of the film itself: the protagonist is hiding a secret that causes him inner anguish, a secret that he feels he cannot reveal either to Damien or to his family yet which is an essential part of his being and which he cannot resist – to perhaps his and Damien’s tragedy.

Quand j’ai remplace Camille: a distinctive animated short with a bold style and straightforward plot

Nathan Otano, Remy Clarke, Leila Courtillon, “Quand j’ai remplace Camille” (2017)

A deftly made short animated film, notable for its use of bright red and shades of green to create and maintain tension in its terse plot, “Quand j’ai remplace Camille”, like some other films I have seen made by students of the Gobelins animation school in France, focuses on a character striving for perfection or control to an extreme obsessive extent so as to risk life and limb. Laure is a competitive freestyle swimmer aiming to break a former swimmer Camille’s record in the pool. Everyone in Laure’s training group knows Camille, knows her perfectionism and knows that she died during a swimming session. During training and even in her spare time, and when there is no-one else at the training pool, Laure pushes herself to reach Camille’s record, with the aim of surpassing it in competition and reaching the national team. This leads to a situation in which Laure ends up falling unconscious in the swimming pool; she is rescued but her health appears to have been seriously compromised.

The animation has a distinct bold style with an emphasis on bright reds that represent Death’s presence, and the greens of the water, the pool tiles and the general surroundings, even the shadows in dark green. When green and red are paired together, as in some scenes, the tension shoots up alarmingly as Laure confronts the apparent ghost of Camille in the pool. Camille’s red hair may signify that she is dead, not that she is a natural redhead. She seems to want to warn Laure of the consequences of pursuing the dangerous and risky path she took. Electronic beat-oriented music is used in some scenes in a way that stresses the intense urgency of Laure’s self-imposed mission.

The simple and straightforward plot sustains a running time of about five to six minutes but if the student animators had had more time, experience and money, they could have invested some effort into creating a backstory for Laure to explain something of her obsession with beating Camille’s record, and the relationship that may have existed between the two. Had they been friends or jealous rivals? Did Laure ever look up to Camille as a role model? Is there something in Laure’s past or family background that explains her fierce competitiveness? All this and more could have made Laure a character for viewers to identify and sympathise with, if not admire.

Caldeira: a short film of inner and outer volcanic turmoil

Julie Bousquet, Estelle Hocquet, Catherine Manesse, “Caldeira” (2018)

A short animated study of sibling rivalry and long-standing jealousy that can have dire consequences, this little film is beautifully made with a main character who, while not likeable, nevertheless will resonate with viewers and have them wishing that she’ll learn a lesson and survive. The plot is rather vague and revolves around Ines, who for some reason feels compelled to compete with her older sister Solene, a vulcanologist who died some time ago in an accident. During a climb up a volcano, Ines is continually lost in thought about her sister having teased her during childhood while they were walking up a hill; during that walk, Ines pretended to have an arm injury so as to avoid a serious accident. This memory challenges Ines to walk deep into a caldera overlooking hot magma. Although she has a gas mask, she throws it off and is overcome by fumes that cause her to hallucinate.

Viewers will be impressed by the artistic animation of background scenes, the scenes in the volcano (and how they reflect Ines’ inner turmoil) and some of the characters. Ines’ inner obsession reveal a character struggling with an inferiority complex, guilt regarding Solene’s death and perhaps other unresolved family issues. The hazy plot suggests that Solene’s death was the result of her risk-taking unmitigated by Ines’ natural caution; perhaps either Ines was not present or she did not do enough (in Ines’ own eyes) to dissuade her sister from going too far into a volcano’s caldera in the past. As her past memories merge with her present reality, Ines is forced to confront what she did or did not do that failed to save her sister.

The film’s resolution suggests that Ines achieves some inner peace and has let go of some of her obsession, and the animation shows a peaceful landscape that mirrors her newfound tranquillity. I’d have liked the film to have been a little longer to demonstrate the nature of Ines and Solene’s rivalry a little more, how it might have begun and some detail of Solene’s death that added to Ines’ obsession with the rivalry.

Hors de l’eau: an allegory of a dysfunctional society doomed to ruin

Simon Duong Van Huyen, Joel Durand, Thibault Leclercq, Valentin Lucas, Andrei Sitari, “Hors de l’eau” (2018)

A very well-made short film combining animation with some live action scenes, “Hors de l’eau” (“Out of the water”) runs as an allegory of human society: a group of Japanese snow macaques, led by an aggressive and unyielding alpha male, migrates up a mountain to a hot spring but is prevented by an elite clique of macaques monopolising the spring from using it. Over time, as winter in the mountain region worsens, the group of macaques, treated literally as a Great Unwashed, suffers and, unable to co-operate with the other macaque group, freezes to death. I’m sorry but the narrative of the film appears to be quite closely based on research of macaque behaviour individually and in groups, and this is borne out by the depiction of the various activities the macaques (including baby macaques at play) engage in, and by their communications.

The film has a severe look and can be harrowing for some viewers, especially in some of its final scenes. The tragedy is apparent in the last couple of scenes in which the severe winter weather abates and hints of spring appear. The style of the animation looks accurate enough, that it blends in easily with live action sequences, yet the animals have highly expressive faces and bright eyes. The entire film is presented from the point of view of one macaque whose face is never seen; viewers only see her hands and arms as they caress a baby or rub together to keep warm. Forcing viewers to inhabit the female macaque as it were, makes the film all the more confronting and tragic as the narrative of a dysfunctional troop led by an alpha male who makes a decision that seals the fate of the entire group plays out.

The film could have been a little bit longer and more detailed to show how one decision leads to many disastrous consequences, and how also a rigid social hierarchy in which a privileged elite monopolises all available resources and denies them to a larger group of animals ends up being the death of them all, as the decreasing size of the group exposes survivors to greater dangers from predators and unexpected emergencies that arise from a changing environment. A warning about the impact of changing climates and what consequences they may bring might be discerned here. Ultimately the lack of dialogue or a voice-over narration, and the simple nature of the plot mean that the film cannot sustain a longer story-line.

Best Friend: a short comment on loneliness, addiction and substituting virtual reality for the real thing

Nicholas Olivieri, Shen Yi, Juliana De Lucca, Varun Nair, David Feliu, “Best Friend” (2019)

In the not-so-distant future, a lonely unnamed man find solace in a drug called Best Friend, implanted into the temple near his left brow, which gives him a stack of virtual friends and girlfriend. So dependent is he on these friends, who can be available 24/7 and offer him plenty of superficial comfort and support but no real love and connection, much less advice and criticism of his addiction, that his face and physical condition display all the hollow-eyed, hollow-cheeked side effects of his psychological and physical dependence. Even his tears are coloured with the yellow chemicals leaking from the implant. On top of that, he is prepared to do anything to sustain his addiction, to the extent that when he needs to get a new batch of the liquid capsules to top up the supply in the implant and finds a queue at the nearest Best Friend store, his “girlfriend” lures him away to an illegal booth in a deserted alley supplying Best Friend at black market prices – but a stranger, equally addicted and just as determined to get his hands on the capsules, follows him, punches him cold, and seizes a shard of glass from the ground in the alley …

A comment on modern society’s need for surrogate reality instead of the real thing, loneliness and alienation, and the addictions such anomie can give rise to, this film works best as a basis for a television series or movie script but no more. The characters represent stereotypes and viewers are not invited to feel much sympathy for them. Only when the stranger appears does the film start to move in a significant direction. The shock comes when the main character is finally named by his friends … only (spoiler alert) they are different friends because he has had to get a new implant … and he appears unaffected by the loss of his previous friends.

The film makes no connection between capitalist ideology and the phenomena it describes which are products of that ideology and its assumptions put in practice: the view of capitalism that humans are essentially materialist and self-interested individuals in competition and conflict with one another, producing a dog-eat-dog world where co-operation and real social connections are treated with suspicion, yet humans still find themselves yearning for something more than the latest gadgets and entertainments. In such a world, fragmentation, isolation and alienation are not only inevitable but encouraged – because if they lead to individuals pursuing remedies that can be commodified, leading to addictions that can also be exploited for profit, they will be.

Memo: a man’s struggle against Alzheimer’s disease and being helpless and dependent on others

Ines Scheiber, Jules Durand, Julien Becquer, Elena Dupressoir, Viviane Guimaraes,Memo” (2017)

A very touching film on Alzheimer’s disease and its impact on sufferers’ daily lives, “Memo” derives its punch from a man’s struggle to preserve his independence and maintain control over his life as his mind is threatened by the creeping onset of the disease. Louis wakes up to find the kitchen and bathroom fixtures almost covered in post-it notes placed by his daughter Nina to remind him of the things he needs to do and that she is coming to have breakfast with him. He discovers the coffee canister is empty and, as if on cue, Nina phones him. They talk briefly and Louis tells Nina the canister is empty. Straight away Nina tells Louis she’ll get the coffee; Louis stubbornly decides he’ll get the coffee himself just to show Nina he can take care of this errand. He goes down to the supermarket and goes through the aisles to search for coffee … and finds himself lost as his visual and spatial memory cloud over in blankness, and he can’t remember where the coffee is kept. He manages to find something and rushes out of the store. To his horror, his mind completely clouds over under the stress of forgetting and being lost, and everything goes blank.

The animation is very clear and does an effective job of suggesting the action of Alzheimer’s disease on a person’s mind by rubbing out (in effect, deconstructing) the animated objects surrounding Louis and devolving everything back into a blank white background. (As if the film had originally been conceived on white paper, which it might well have been.) The film’s point of view closely mirrors Louis’ point of view so the clouding effect is likely to make a strong impression on viewers’ minds. While Louis through his actions is a character easy to sympathise with, the plot is very threadbare and Nina is as sketchy as can be so the film cannot sustain very much more than five minutes of story. Viewers must bear in mind though that this animation was created by young undergraduate students at the Gobelins animation school. More experienced animators might have introduced a sub-plot in which Louis comes to resent being dependent on Nina, and Nina perhaps feeling irritated at Louis’ peevishness and also a bit resentful at having to look after her father while other siblings shirk their obligations.

The straightforward, realistic visual style of the animation contrasts strongly with the fading of the objects and backgrounds of the film. We feel Louis’ terror and confusion as his world is overcome by the chaos of nothingness. The film makes its point quickly as the characters beat back the disease with familiar routine and more post-it notes – but for how much longer until Nina is forced to find round-the-clock care for her father, we don’t know.

The Mascot: a puppet dog’s mission of self-sacrifice results in an amazing masterpiece of stop-motion animation

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Mascot / F├ętiche Mascotte ” (1933)

An amazing and brilliant short work of stop-motion animation, “The Mascot” is one of several masterpieces made by Russian-Polish animator over a long period from 1909 to 1965, the year of his death. Starewicz began his career in Kaunas, then a part of Russian Poland, before moving to Moscow in 1911 and working there until 1918. After the Bolshevik Revolution in November 2017, Starewicz fled to Yalta in Crimea, and moved to Paris in 1920 where he spent the rest of his life making stop-motion animated films, short and feature-length, his career spanning the silent-film period and films with sound.

This brief 25-minute film was intended to be the first film in a series featuring a dog puppet called Duffy. Riffing on themes of self-sacrifice and the search for goodness in an uncertain and chaotic world, the film follows Duffy on an odyssey that takes him quite literally through hell. Duffy comes to life when a woman toy-maker, caring for an invalid daughter, weeps and a teardrop falls onto his body. He contrives to hop into bed with the child and manages to hear that she wants an orange, before the toy-maker mother packs him into a box along with several other toys and they are all put into the back of a car to be taken to a toy-shop. The other toys, which include a ballerina, a clown and a thuggish tramp already living in a sort of menage a trois at the toy-maker’s apartment, see their chance to escape and bolt through a hole the thug tramp makes in the box leading to a gap in the car’s boot. Only Duffy decides to remain in the car. The toys tumble out into the street with various results: the ballerina ends up in the gutter and the clown no sooner hits the dirt than he is decapitated by another car. Ouch!

Later sold to a car owner who hangs him from his rear-view mirror, Duffy falls out of the car through an unexpected accident. He seizes the opportunity to obtain an orange for the little invalid girl and then tries to retrace his journey back to the toy-maker but not before falling in with a devil character who holds a grand and grotesque party with many guests, several of whom are the toys who had escaped from the car. The thug character treats his ballerina amour roughly and violently, and even stabs his devil host. Duffy loses the orange a few times before he is able to escape with it from the party. The other toys chase him down the road but Duffy is saved in the nick of time by the toy-maker’s army of toy soldiers. He is able to fulfill his mission but his reward and joy turn out to be all too brief in an unexpected plot twist that must have appealed to Starewicz’s dark sense of humour but is likely to upset children and those who have already warmed to Duffy’s bravery and persistence.

The animation is excellent: the various characters move smoothly and well, and their faces are very expressive, even if they can’t talk much. The toys move in the way viewers might expect them to move, that is to say, stiffly at times, though Duffy is able to run bipedally on his hind-legs and kick his orange like a football when the need arises! Clever editing and fast-paced backgrounds make the chase scene thrilling and tense, with the toys racing from left to right on the screen before the soldiers push them right to left. The nightmarish party, straight out of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Devil and Margarita”, scenes of death and gory violence, and Duffy’s continued suffering even in the midst of triumph and joy rule this film out as a children’s film.

The narrative does linger too long in the second half of the film which is dominated by the devil’s party. One might have thought that negotiating his way through Paris car and foot traffic would be sufficient hard work for Duffy but no, Starewicz decided to add a most incongruous mediaeval fantasy plot twist. Perhaps at this point Starewicz was a bit too carried away by what he could do with his puppet characters; the gags in this part of the film can be distasteful for some viewers, and Duffy’s skin and orange are saved by a deus ex machina device. The subplot involving the ballerina, the clown and the thug is resolved, but tragically. On the plus side, the film is not at all sentimental in its portrayal of Duffy’s journey and mission.

The film deserves to be better known for its technological advances and the potential it demonstrates in the genre of stop-motion animation at the time of its making.

Claire Darling: slow film about memory, heritage and past pain leading to a big bang

Julie Bertuccelli, “Claire Darling / La derniere folie de Claire Darling” (2018)

On the first day of summer in a small village somewhere in France, an elderly woman, Claire (Catherine Deneuve) – heir to a mining fortune – wakes up and is convinced that this day is the last day of her life. She arranges for local men to cart all her furniture and possessions into the front courtyard – including all the objects, dolls, knick-knacks and objets d’art she has collected over the years – where they are to be sold in a giant garage sale to the entire village community. Everyone rocks up to gawp at the objects on sale and the amazingly low prices offered. A local woman Martine (Laure Calamy) who happens to be an old school-friend of Claire’s daughter Marie, contacts the daughter and informs her of what her mother is doing. Marie (Chiara Mastroianni) immediately races over to try to stop the garage sale from going ahead but not before several major objects and prized pieces of furniture have gone.

This premise serves as an opportunity to explore dementia in elderly people, the effect of ageing on people’s memories and how memory serves to establish and maintain people’s identities and relationships with others past and present. The garage sale and the various objects that it emphasises – most of all, an elaborate elephant clock and a reproduction of Monet’s “Water Lilies” painting – hint at various past episodes in Claire Darling’s life (in which a younger Claire is played by Alice Taglioni), in particular how her son and husband died before their time and the lies that led to the rift between Claire and her daughter. Not a few sub-plots arise – in particular a sub-plot that hints at Claire and the local village priest becoming attracted to each other, and one that hints at Marie renewing a friendship (and finding romance) with local gendarme Amir (Samir Guesmi) – of which even fewer come to resolution or completion. The objects being sold themselves hold memories and guard secrets – most of all, the secret of where Claire’s lost ring has gone – and the garage sale itself becomes symbolic not only of Claire’s possible dementia but of her own life since the unhappy break-up of her family decades ago.

An alternate view of the garage sale might be that, since Claire is convinced that her life is to end that day, the sale of the objects is her way of preparing to die by divesting herself of all that has burdened her, psychologically and physically, throughout life. Although we never find out why Claire has always needed to collect ornaments, books, artwork and furniture, or why she hides precious dolls and toys in a garden niche, we can surmise that this hoarding gives her the security that she needed throughout her life but has never had. Over the years though, the security has become a burden that eventually compels her to live as a recluse surrounded by all her hoarding.

The film unfolds slowly with flashbacks to the past deliberately mixed into the present to demonstrate how past memories continually intrude into and influence present-day events. As a result, while the immersion into the French countryside can be very appealing (if rather deliberate and kitsch – there are few signs of poverty and no Gilets Jaunes protesting against President Emmanuel Macron’s austerity politics slowly killing French society), the action is drawn out and most characters do little more than run around in circles. An opportunity to present French village life as it might have been in the past and contrast it with the present – with the soulless efficiency of the city encroaching on and destroying what individuality and quirkiness remain – is missed.

The film’s climax, when it comes, when Claire expects her premonition to be fulfilled, arrives unexpectedly and suddenly, with most of the recluse’s secrets and issues still not fully resolved with Marie – or the rest of the village community for that matter. The Big Bang ending is surreal, akin to the famous conclusion of Michelangelo Antonioni’s cult film “Zabriskie Point”, in which everything flows back into the river of life. Far from preparing for death, Claire was preparing to live again.

The Happy Prince: a character study of Oscar Wilde in exile and artistic decline

Rupert Everett, “The Happy Prince” (2018)

A labour of love, of much research over the years on the life and work of Irish-British writer Oscar Wilde, is this character study by Rupert Everett who not only directs the film but wrote the script and plays Wilde as well. The plot is skeletal to the point of non-existence and follows Wilde’s last years after his release from prison in 1897 for engaging in homosexual activities with younger, lower-class men: he goes into self-exile in France and reunites with Lord Alfred Douglas aka Bosie (Colin Morgan) despite the latter and his father the Marquess of Queensberry having been a cause of Wilde’s downfall and eventual imprisonment. Against the objections of his friends Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), Wilde flees to Naples with Bosie where they spend lavishly on “gentlemen’s parties” but are forced to separate when their respective families cut off their allowances for continuing to see each other. Wilde returns to Paris where, depressed and alone, spurned by polite society, he finds solace in absinthe and in befriending two young brothers, the older of whom becomes his rent-boy. To both brothers, especially the younger, Wilde tells them the story of the Happy Prince. From then on, the narrative trajectory is on a downward slide, as Wilde writes very little and his health declines from a combination of meningitis and an old prison injury to his head flaring up again.

Wilde’s tumultuous and colourful three years in exile contrast with the restricted life his crippled wife Constance (Emily Watson) and their two young sons are forced to lead, to avoid public scrutiny and scorn. After Constance’s death, her relatives make sure the children never see their father again and this causes Wilde anguish. Another sub-plot that stays mostly undeveloped is the rivalry between Bosie and Ross for Wilde’s affections which continues even at Wilde’s funeral.

Everett’s portrayal of Wilde with all his flamboyance, his wit and selfish appetites is a passionate and heartfelt tour-de-force that anchors the entire film and carries it all the way to the end. While his punishment was severe and undeserved, and his health was affected by imprisonment to the extent that his life expectancy was severely reduced, Wilde is determined to live his life to the full in the way he wants, even if this means losing access to his children and possibly ending up in a poorhouse. He does become very religious but even there his newfound Catholicism must take second place to his pursuit of hedonism and aestheticism. At the same time he is persecuted by the very people who used to laud his plays and other writings, and his ability to live how he wants depends very much on his in-laws who control his and Constance’s purse-strings. By the way he lives his life, Wilde calls attention to the hypocrisy of the society that alternately flatters and spurns him, and ultimately destroys him. It is not difficult to see why Wilde is drawn to Catholicism: he sees in the suffering and martyrdom of Jesus Christ his own persecution, and from that obtains comfort and learns to accept his suffering as part of his destiny.

The other actors know when the spotlight is on them and when they should get out of Everett’s way. Watson is a pleasure to watch even if most of her roles these days barely challenge her abilities and are of the motherly support stereotype. Firth underplays his role as Turner and Tom Wilkinson all but steals every scene he appears in as the priest who baptises Wilde.

The film emphasises Wilde’s acceptance of the humiliations that come with his celebrity and subsequent notoriety, and his determination to live his life as he sees fit, however shallow and self-centred his decisions might be. He learns to find beauty and radiance in even the most squalid and impoverished situations. The only issue I have with the film is that Victorian society which condemns Wilde and casts him off for being true to his nature and living his life to the full, but treats him in such a way that his health is ruined and his life cut short, does not come in for very much criticism.