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.

Ne Zha: noisy overblown blockbuster film with a message about changing one’s destiny

Jiaozi, “Ne Zha” (2019)

A loud, noisy and overblown blockbuster animation fantasy made to please most people, this film is loosely based on a legend about the birth of a divine hero in Chinese folk religion. Essentially the film portrays the origin story of Ne Zha, the son of Li Jing, a military commander in charge of a fortress at Chentang Pass, and Lady Yin. Before his birth, Ne Zha was supposed to receive the essence of the Spirit Pearl, created as one half of a Heavenly Pearl given by the Lord of Heaven; the other half, known as the Demon Pearl, would be used to create elsewhere a demon whose life-span will be only three years, during which period the demon brings havoc and destruction to humanity, and after which the evil being is destroyed by lightning. (Talk about having your life already mapped out for you before you’re born!) Evil forces however conspire to dupe the Taoist immortal Taiyi Zhenren, portrayed in the film as a drunken fatso with little self-control, in order to steal the Spirit Pearl from him and infuse the Demon Pearl into Lady Yin’s unborn child. The result is that Ne Zha is born with the spirit and hot-headed temperament of a demon and ends up being hated and persecuted by the village folk living around the fortress. Li Jing, Lady Yin and Taiyi Zhenren, grieving that the boy will only live three years, resolve to train him so that he may be able to control his demonic nature and powers (which keep the village’s construction and waste recycling industries extremely busy) and perhaps use them for good.

In the meantime, the Spirit Pearl is used by Taiyi Zhenren’s rival Shen Gongbao to infuse its essence into the son of the Dragon King, imprisoned along with his fellow dragons deep in the ocean and yearning to escape and reimpose their rule on Earth. The son, Ao Bing, later meets Ne Zha during a tussle with a sea demon who nearly kills Ao Bing. Ne Zha saves Ao Bing’s life and the two boys, unaware that they are supposed to be mortal enemies, become friends.

The film plays very hard and fast with the characters and plot of the original legend, setting the cast and the story in a template of goodies-versus-baddies and the story itself being fairly simple and easy to follow so it has to be padded out with a nearly endless series of fights involving as many explosions, impossible feats of magic that break the laws of physics, and martial arts derring-do, all performed at insane ear-shattering levels of noise. The characters look as if they’re straight out of a Disney or Pixar film and are for the most part very one-dimensional. There is little to indicate that both Ne Zha and Ao Bing experience much inner conflict wrestling with their essential natures and vowing to overcome or change what Fate decreed for them. Li Jing and Lady Yin are little more than father and mother stereotypes and Taiyi Zhenren plays his buffoon role for cheap laughs.

The film’s message that one does not need to accept one’s destiny and nature as given and can change for the better is strong throughout the film. There are also other messages about how discrimination and prejudice can persuade victims to be resentful and vengeful, and how simple acts of kindness can help people change for the better. Above all, viewers not familiar with traditional Chinese culture can see an emphasis on balance and harmony: the water nature of Ao Bing (dragons being essentially water creatures in Chinese mythology) balances the fiery nature of Ne Zha in their encounters; and this emphasis is also at the heart of Ne Zha’s training to be a well-rounded human, Ne Zha having to learn to balance his demon nature with self-control, awareness of his powers, and using knowledge and thinking to deploy his powers to protect, defend and save others less powerful than he.

The best part of the film is its backgrounds and special effects. What a pity though that the cast of characters, the story-line and the pyrotechnics fail to do the technical design justice.

Shadow Thief: a critique of social and cultural pressure on individuals to conform to other standards

Kim Heeyae, “Shadow Thief” (2018)

Done entirely in black and white and shades of grey with no dialogue, this animated short is a brilliant critique of the pressure on individuals to conform to dominant social standards and values even if these turn people into mindless clones tied to (and to be eventually crushed by) the corporate state capitalist machine. An unnamed man observes the shadows of other apparent physical clones of himself as very similar while his own shadow resembles a Henry Moore sculpture. After being rejected by one set of prospective employers after another and another because his shadow just doesn’t look the same as everyone else’s shadows, our man tries to mould his shadow (and thus himself) into what he believes is required of him. The jobs still evade him so in desperation he attempts to steal a perfect shadow to wear. This requires him to murder someone …

With no monologue or dialogue to speak of, the film must rely on its anti-hero’s facial expressions and body language to convey his disappointment, anguish and panic at being rejected for not being a square peg to fit into a round hole, and on the body language of other people and their shadows to show rejection and mocking. The irony in the film comes when our anti-hero, in doing what he does to steal a shadow, expresses his individuality in full (because what other person would do what he does, in that clone society?) and on doing so, runs away from the consequences and the ownership of his action. He becomes a true individual but cannot cope with that reality.

The animation may be simple and the backgrounds a little cartoonish in appearance but its story is powerful. The ambiguous ending is appropriate for the plot: we are left wondering whether the anti-hero will ever own up to his crime willingly or by force.

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.

Little Audrey – Tarts and Flowers: sugar and spice that are not too nice in a rich and lavish film

Bill Tytla, “Little Audrey – Tarts and Flowers” (1950)

Part of a series of cartoons about a cute kindergarten-aged girl called … well, what else? … Little Audrey, this little short film packs in puns and jokes a-plenty amid some sumptuous artwork and (of course) visual gags. Our heroine takes instructions on baking gingerbread cookies from a radio cooking program: the interplay between the instructor (who can’t possibly see what the child is doing) and Little Audrey as she throws a hundred million ingredients into a mixing bowl and beats the mixture faster than Superman can punch up Darkseid with Krypton speed has its amusing moments. Once Little Audrey has her dough sitting in the oven, the cooking program ends and she drifts off to sleep with the timer set to go off in half an hour …

… and when it does, Little Audrey is astonished to see a live gingerbread man jump out and announce he’s off to a place called Cakeland to see his date. Little Audrey follows him all the way where he introduces her to his fiancee Miss Angel Cake and announces their marriage. Little Audrey assists Miss Angel Cake with her wedding preparations and follows the two into the chapel where the priest will marry Gingerbread Man and Miss Angel Cake. Next thing you know, the villainous Devil’s Food Cake fellow, complete with forehead horns, twirly moustache and goatee beard, turns up and kidnaps Miss Angel Cake. Gingerbread Man and Little Audrey (the latter calling on the cop cakes) must try to rescue Miss Angel Cake before she is whisked off to Devil’s Food Cake Island through Strawberry Short Cut. Well, that’s the kind of cheesecake punning we must put up with in this cartoon.

The short treads a good balance between an excess of cream and cake on the screen and actual saccharine sweetness: there’s very little on the screen that makes viewers feel nauseous, the jokes can be clever and the film rockets along at a cracking pace so there’s no time to linger on anything. Cakeland and its dancing citizens, along with the fantastic cake, cream and pastry architecture, have a dream-like quality and the colours used in the film are lush and vibrant. An interesting twist comes at the end of the cartoon when Little Audrey realises she has been dreaming and takes the dough mixture out of the oven; the reaction she has when she sees what’s in the pan is priceless. Did she really dream or was her little adventure for real?

While the animation of the characters isn’t very good and the plot is basic (the cartoon is aimed at a very young audience), the overall look of the cartoon is rich, even lavish. Pastries dance the can-can and perform Hollywood-style musical numbers to celebrate the wedding. Young viewers will learn something about being helpful to others without expecting any rewards, and being grateful for help offered selflessly.

The Mad Hatter: an insubstantial story in a detailed cartoon universe

Sid Marcus, “The Mad Hatter” (1940)

Mocking the faddish nature of women’s fashions, this animated short can be surprisingly critical of the nature of everyday work in capitalist society, the slave routine it forces on people, and how some people can end up quite deranged as a result. A secretary called Maisie jumps out of bed when her alarm clock rings and races through her morning routine of shower, brushing her teeth, getting dressed and made-up for work, and gobbling her breakfast literally on the fly. She runs after the bus so hard, she actually manages to catch up with it; the catch though is that as soon as she reaches it, she and the bus have both arrived at the bus stop where she would normally get off! Hitting her desk in reception at the precise time of 8:30 am when work starts, she immediately does start to work: she hauls out a box of candy to chomp on and a soapy novel to read while waiting for customers!

Nine hours later, having been finally released from work, Maisie goes to a hat shop to try on various hats: she likes one particular piece and the shop assistant places an order for it. The order goes to the hat factory where various milliner employees, straitjacketed and caged, loll about waiting for their orders! One fellow, eyes rolling about and tongue drooling, is given Maisie’s order and he turns out a veritable mountain of fruit that would have done the then popular Brazilian singer-actress Carmen Miranda proud. The order is delivered to the shop and Maisie promptly buys the hat.

There are many gags poking fun at Maisie and women’s fashion choices generally, and at a particular fashion-related industry that exploits human whim by hiring mentally deranged people to come up with original ideas for making hats. Such gags hark back to times when milliners and their employees really did suffer mental derangement from having to breathe mercury fumes from the solution used to turn animal fur into felt, used as the raw material for hats.

The plot is otherwise insubstantial and the main value of this short is to demonstrate the astonishing details in the animated backgrounds and the gags packed into seven minutes. While characters themselves are not drawn very well, the objects and furnishings in Maisie’s house look surprisingly three-dimensional and accurate. Joke after joke rolls out continuously; even the neighbour’s cat is drawn into a joke that sends up human vanity and intelligence. Animators who only know how to use digital animation databases in creating characters and backgrounds should watch short animated films like “The Mad Hatter” to see how a cartoon can compensate for shallow characters and an equally shallow story by creating a detailed and layered world where the action takes place.