Les lèvres gercées: a tiny kitchen sink drama reveals a dysfunctional family

Fabien Corre, Kelsi Phung, “Les lèvres gercées” (2018)

In just five minutes, within the setting of a small kitchen and with just two characters – a mother and her son who is wrestling with gender dysphoria – a family crisis plays out through dialogue demonstrating inattention and lack of communication. The boy wants to tell Maman that he is transgender but Maman, shown throughout the film with her facial features cropped so that we never see what she really looks like until the very last shot, is too concerned with other things – like his truancy problem, the fights he has with classmates and finally his suspension from school – to listen to him.

The style of animation, looking as if someone was pressing down hard with an ink brush, is very detailed and shows characters and objects in close-up with lots of lines. We are treated to some interesting points of view: at one point, we have a bird’s-eye view of cereal being poured down the kitchen sink, being sucked into the drain. At other points in the film, soup starts to boil over in the saucepan and washing whirls around in the front-loader. The boy’s anguish and pain over what he is and what he feels himself to be are so clear that viewers can’t help but feel for him. The mother is often portrayed quite harshly with lines that emphasise her anger and narrow-minded stance.

As with other recent Gobelins graduates’ films, the voice acting and the script, entirely reliant on dialogue, are effective in establishing an intimate and private home scene in which a child faces an inner conflict that he needs parental help with, but which is not forthcoming. It’s only when he appears to be considering suicide that the mother finally begins to understand the depth of the boy’s despair. At this point, the film is done.

Viewers will want to know what happens next but this is an appropriate point to end the film. More is known about this particular family’s dysfunctional nature by the little that is revealed and what is deliberately left out, which may be a lot or not much at all. This animation is an excellent example of the “show, don’t tell” principle of telling a story and how dialogue is used to push that story along and embellish it.

Mehua: criticising the dogma and empty rituals of religion

Camille Aigloz, Simon Anding Malandin, Michiru Baudet, Margo Roquelaure, Diane Tran Duc, Lucy Vallin, “Mehua” (2017)

In real life, the Aztecs did not sacrifice their own women and girls en masse to their gods: they usually sacrificed prisoners of war in special ceremonies at certain times of the year and celebrated such ceremonies and the associated rituals with dignity and solemnity. The reason for human sacrifice lies in the Aztecs’ creation myths in which the gods sacrifice themselves for humanity and therefore require human offerings so that the sun can continue to bring day to the world. The stereotypes that mar this short film are regrettable as its message can be applied to any religion or ideology: dogmatism, complacency and perhaps ignorance of the original rationale for particular ceremonies and rituals (as time passes and generations are further removed from those traditions’ original context) can lead to ossified attitudes and resistance to change and compassion. Two women, one older than the other and who could be her older sister, prepare themselves for mass sacrifice at the top of a pyramid. When they climb to the top, the older woman lays herself down on the stone table, the masked priest raises his bloodied knife … and the younger woman picks up a flame-bearing pole and starts swiping and whacking the other priests in her attempts to save her friend.

As with other Gobelins animated shorts, the plot is vague and left open-ended. Viewers can assume a far worse fate awaits the two women for daring to disrupt a sacred tradition that keeps the sun rising every morning. The backgrounds and scenes in the film are beautifully done with an emphasis on blue and green shades. Particularly stunning is a sequence in which the older woman prays (in French-accented Nahuatl) to the snake gods who, arranged in a labyrinth that might resemble star charts consulted by Aztec priests to determine sowing and harvesting dates for farmers, arise from their slumber and watch the black background above their heads crack to reveal sunlight. Swathed in gorgeous tones of jade green and bright blue against the black backdrop, the scene looks computer-designed but displays bright imagination as the snake gods raise their heads and hiss and roar in fury.

No matter that they have broken their people’s most sacred customs and laws and must face their community’s wrath, the two women support and trust in each other, standing against the world as the guards and warriors climb the pyramid to discover they have killed the priests. What punishment awaits them – or perhaps what reward the women will receive for removing a parasitical class – we can only guess at.

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.