Reflections: original and beautiful use of black-and-white animation to illustrate a cosmic joke

Jerzy Kucia, “Reflections / Refleksy” (1979)

Black-and-white animation has never been used so well as in this little film about the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on a small scale. A newly formed adult insect struggles to emerge from its cocoon after a long period of pupation, only to be attacked by a predatory ant that has been waiting for its prey for a long time. The insect and the ant struggle but the battle is very one-sided. No sooner does a victor emerge than it too is subjected to another cosmic joke.

Simple though the narrative is, it is beautifully told in the way Kucia changes the viewer’s POV from side-on when the first insect completes its metamorphosis and is attacked, to a bird’s-eye POV when the insects fall into a puddle and fight to the death. The action moves off-screen and all we know is the crackling noise the creatures make and the ripples of black and white waves moving across the screen as the animals struggle. (Animator Kucia originally trained as a painter and his painting background is obvious in the way he uses black and white colours to show the rippling water moving across the screen and to reveal narrative.) The ripples change to show a silhouette of the trilby-hatted man watching the insects and listening to background traffic noises, waiting for a car to arrive. The man ends up playing God to both insects.

Remarkably the action looks as if it could have been done in one take without any editing as it moves from left to right continuously and then to the top right-hand corner of the screen as the ant pulverises its victim and the victim fights in sheer desperation. The final blow occurs off-screen and we have to infer it from the foot-prints left behind by the man as he leaves the puddle. With the action appearing as though in close-up, the viewer is in a position of being voyeur and therefore complicit with the trilby wearer in allowing the first insect to suffer as it does while the ant is attacking it.

As with much other Polish animation, there is grim black humour which arises from the film’s theme of the vicissitudes of Fate and the fragility of life in a particular microcosm. “Refleksy” gains its power from its style of animation, the originality of the way the action is framed, and in the way it leaves out the most significant action which has to be inferred by the viewer. The viewer is then left to ponder as to why the man didn’t act earlier with regard to the insects’ battle.

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