A fluffy stick figure in Don Hertzfeldt’s introduction for The Animation Show (2003) plaintively asks, “What’s Animation?”—and what follows in this brilliant short is a staging of the magic and power of animation, its contrarian tendencies towards cuteness and violence, and its delightful defiance of accepted (realist) categories and definitions. While it may seem a bit obvious to ask this question, the problem of “what’s animation” continues to resonate deeply in contemporary film culture. This has been especially true this year with a controversial pick for the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, Lorenzo Mattotti’s The Bears Famous Invasion of Sicily. Was it too perverse, too demented, or too shoddy to be shown in the festival? No, it seemed too “childish,” provoking some critics to ask how it could be relevant for adults or appropriate for a “serious” film festival. Such rigorous separation of the adult from the childish was not always the case for animation, nor is it a global standard. But segregating animation as “children’s films” has long been de rigor in film culture and festivals, with the occasional exception of “serious” (i.e., political and/or realistic) animation like The Swallows of Kabul (Eléa Gobé Mévellec and Zabou Breitman) or Ville Neuve (Felix Dufour-LaPerriere). Both these excellent films deal with weighty political issues, and in particular the ways in which men perpetrate violence and are caught it its web. Yet such subjects should not be the only ones that qualify animation as “adult.” Violence need not be at the center of a film for it to be serious, and the aesthetics of cuteness—often viewed as inferior, facile, and insignificant—have just as much relevance for adults as for children. The gentle, the kind, the sweet, the fluffy: these things also have something to say to us.
While it remains in the sidebar at major film festivals like Cannes and Venice, animation takes center stage at a number of international festivals which truly celebrate its variety and scope, its malleability and quirkiness, its whimsy and vice. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, begun in 1960 as a biennial festival, but an annual festival since 1998. It takes place in June in the picturesque town of Annecy, and with its turrets, cobblestones and backdrop of the French Alps, one might almost call it Disneyesque. But its selection is not limited to animation as a child’s fantasy world (though there is that); rather, the festival features a dizzying variety of international animated films ranging from big studio and indie features to competitive, student, television and commissioned shorts, special events, works in progress, and retrospectives, including a national focus (this year’s was Japan).
Annecy also supports a serious international marketplace, and animation students make up a large portion of the festival’s attendees; in fact, attendance at the festival has doubled in the last six years. Despite the increasing presence at the festival of big American animation studios and producers like DreamWorks, Illumination, and Netflix, festival director Marcel Jean insists the event will remain dedicated to experimentation and diversity, a commitment that is obvious when examining the programs. Thus, while this year’s festival included screenings of future box office blockbusters Frozen 2 and Toy Story 4 (out of competition), it also featured heavy-hitting political films like Zero Impunity (Nicolas Blies, Stéphane Hueber-Blies, Denis Lambert), and “the first animation made to be watched by chimpanzees,” Mirai Mizue’s mind-bending and abstract Dawn of Ape. In a show of commitment to young talent, collaboration, and experimentation, Annecy also features one of the most engaging of festival introductions: a series of five produced by animation students from Gobelins, l’ecole d’image. These creative and beautifully crafted shorts are a true highlight of the festival, and often inspiring—as in the case of the 2015 homage to female animators. This year the focus was on Japan, and the delightful intros paid tribute to various aspects of Japanese culture, including kaiju, Akira Kurosawa and Kyu Sakamoto.
Given the true variety of animation that screens at the festival—not only in terms of content but also style and medium— there was a surprising convergence in the subject matter of the award-winning films this year: most of the twenty focused on male angst, brutality, and competition, as well as confusion, despair, and illness. Some of the short films were abstract or allegorical, like My Generation, by Ludovic Houplain (whose 2005 Logorama is deservedly a cult classic), Merlin Fluegel’s Rules of Play, and Rain, by Piotr Milczarek. My Generation, for example, features Hitler’s bombastic voice against a series of landscapes filled with the edifices, institutions, and prejudices men have constructed. Others were more personal, and probed the physical manifestations of male loss of power and control. Luke Bourne’s These Things in My Head, Side A, utilizes a grotesque style to share a deep anxiety about the self being invaded by outside forces. Drive, by Pedro Casavecchia, follows the creation and fruition of violence in a young boy as he grows to manhood.
The most interesting of these shorts integrate both the personal and the symbolic, and they do so in a way that is more reflective about what it means to become powerless and vulnerable. Don’t Know What, Thomas Renoldner’s experimental film, contains a mantra which embodies these central ideas. Repeating and fragmenting the same words, the film announces “I don’t know what I’m doing.” This statement applies to both Renoldner’s construction of the film and to the deeper subject of recovering from illness. In much the same vein, Mémorable, by Bruno Collet, beautifully and poignantly explores a couple’s struggle with Alzheimers. Louis, alone and in conversation with Michelle, experiences the dissolution of the world around him as he continues to try to make sense of it—the anarchy of matter speaks to him. Based on the life of Dutch artist William Utermohlen, the film tells its story through the animation as much as it does through narrative. The character’s loss of memory and self is depicted in this stop-motion film in part through a transformation of artistic styles, finally ending with Michelle’s joyful laughter as we return to the point of origin: the line, the dot, the point. The beginning and end of representation and life.
The two films by women to win awards (plus one that was co-directed) focused on relationships between girls and fathers/uncles: Tio Thomas, by the marvelous Regina Pessoa, and a student film by newcomer Daria Kashcheeva, Daughter. Both were outstanding films presenting a richer perspective on the subject of male vulnerability than most of their counterparts, with the notable exception of Mémorable. Like it, they also feature exquisite animation, and in their utilization of stop motion, introduce a materiality that adds depth to the story and aesthetic. Each also self-reflexively engages with the question of art, representation, and the suffering and comfort close relationships bring us. The uncle of Tio Thomas may be ruled by numbers but he is also filled with kindness and love, and he teaches his niece how to nurture her art, evidenced by Pessoa’s nuanced and textured drawings. In Daughter, father and daughter struggle together to find a way to relate that is mediated by observing a bird’s struggle to live, and by their conjoined imagination in recreating its existence.
Like the short films, the three winning features also present men struggling with their nightmares and inadequacies, and despite some fantastic and surrealist elements, each strives for a realist aesthetic. Gints Zilbalodis’s thoughtful Away focuses on one man’s journey through a fantasy world—with obvious ties to the structures and landscapes of video gaming. The film is especially laudable as a feature length 3D animation created entirely by one person—a testimony against the outsourcing of labor. Salvador Simó’s Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles relates a story based in fact: Luis Buñuel’s struggles to make Las Hurdes (1933). Expertly integrating clips from the actual film with the animated story, the film is an ambitious assessment of the politics and aesthetics of surrealism made accountable by activists—both communist and anarchist (Pierre Unik, Eli Lotar, and Ramón Acín Aquilué). Buñuel is portrayed in the film as a rather spoiled and irreverent bourgeois artist who becomes a better person through his contact with the poor dissident artists and townsfolk helping him make the documentary. During the course of filming he slowly comes to understand that his self-indulgent brutality and ambition to impose his own version of reality have consequences—not unlike those manifested by the Spanish fascists who murder Ramón and his wife early in the Spanish Civil war. Haunted by his own inadequacies and a violent vision of the world, he yet finds the humanity that lurks inside his heart.
The big winner was Jérémy Clapin’s I Lost My Body, which won the Nespresso Grand Prize at the Critics’ Week in Cannes in addition to the Cristal and Audience awards at Annecy. It presents the story of a depressed young man named Naoufel, who was orphaned as a child in Morocco and is raised by relatives in Paris. Shy and hapless, he drifts through life without purpose until he is riveted by the voice of a customer he has failed to deliver pizza to in a timely manner. The character is a nostalgic one, with his inability to master the basics of 21st century living, his fascination with the North Pole (harking back to the 19th century), even his attempts to woo a woman by awkwardly building a fantasy relationship around her. His object of desire, Gabrielle, is disturbed by his approach, though she softens after discovering more about his past. The film also taps into a contemporary (hipster) zeitgeist with its fascination for a vanishing past (arctic exploration, carpentry, vintage TV shows), lost technologies (tape recorders), and genre passions for horror and super heroes. The script was co-written by Amélie screenwriter Guillaume Laurant (and based on his novel), and while its level of whimsy and innocent muddling is more restrained, the similarities are clear.
Naoufel’s love story is contrasted with the horror/adventure of his hand, which is severed through the careless use of a saw (or more philosophically: his obsession with past goals and his parent’s accidental death). We only see this happen late in the film, but the hand’s solitary journey runs parallel with Naoufel’s story as the film weaves past and present together. The journey of the hand is often the more engaging one with its thrills, comedy, surrealism, and an especially tender encounter with a baby, reminding us that our perception as infants allows for a more wondrous interpretation of the world. Despite the horror elements, though, it is almost a feel-good movie about dismemberment: the similarity to Thing from The Addams Family (and thus comedy) is undeniable, and the fear of bodily loss is never truly explored.
While the film has been lauded for this supposedly unique plot device, disembodied limbs and hands are prevalent in animation (and horror), with the most famous of animated hands certainly being Jiří Trnka’s The Hand (1965), a powerful antifascist tale that is one of the greatest shorts of the 1960s. The hand in I Lost My Body was not even the creepiest case of dismemberment the festival offered. Legendary Japanese animators Eiichi Yamamoto and Gisaburo Sugii teamed up to adapt a story by Yasunari Kawabata: One Arm (2018), which played in the Japanese retrospective. This strange, esoteric story is intriguing and elusive in both its narrative and animation, and disturbing in its conclusions. Keep Forgetting, a student film by Takahiro Shibata, spins an equally dark tale that is both cute and creepy—kimo-kawaii or guro-kawaii in Japanese. The film features a number of dismemberments, and its invocation of the terror of loss and fear of the unknown is brilliantly evoked on multiple levels, including mixing animation mediums, allowing a literal vomiting of the real into the film that also marks a true surrealism.
While I Lost My Body has its moments, its “adult” topic and style are ultimately undermined by a rather child-like approach to the reality of personal change and growth. In the end, Naoufel’s passage to a new life (and adulthood) is a symbolic one. The film insists that his true path forward must stem from a spectacular leap across an abyss as a faux-heroic passage from a life of failure to success. This leap might seem foolhardy (it is); but it allows for a grand gesture—with the lost hand serving as symbolic proof of struggle. The idea that suffering must itself be a gateway to greatness is a popular, if unrealistic one, which fuels many fantasy stories and feeds into the human desire for hardship to be more significant than it is. Ride Your Wave, by Masaaki Yuasa, director of the fabulous Night is Short, Walk on Girl (2017), provides a marked contrast to this idea, and instead embraces a commitment to hard work as a moral necessity and an essential part of the path to value. Ride Your Wave is an often joyful film about accepting the loss of a loved one, and shows us struggle that is real, not symbolic. Viewers might even wonder at some of the intense detail of the film—the explanation of how to make a proper rice omelet or good coffee, for example—but this is essential in conveying an ethos of true craft and skill. Making a good cup of coffee doesn’t just happen—and this is a fundamental fact of life that too few films address. Ride Your Wave is also not afraid to embrace the kawaii (a Japanese term for cute) alongside the serious or “adult”—Japanese films in general don’t seem preoccupied with this distinction that so often stymies Westerners. One scene in particular serves to illustrate this, in which the main character—surfer girl Mukamizu—carries around a life-sized plastic porpoise filled with water and the spirit of her dead boyfriend Hinageshi: here the cuteness only deepens the pathos.
Ride Your Wave underscores the essential lack arising from the award selection’s narrowness of theme. So many narratives of male angst and loss look backwards rather than forwards, a nostalgic turn towards what has been lost rather than a recognition of what is or can be. And of course, an absence of female presence. Annecy has laudably shown real dedication to increasing the presence of women, and films by women, at the festival. Although only two feature competitions (out of eighteen) were by women, the student films were about equally divided: the future looks promising. And perhaps in an over-appreciation of the “serious” and the “adult,” the awards lacked films celebrating the more joyful, anarchic, experimental aspects of animation, and of human beings. This was clearly in evidence in only one award—the commissioned film Ted-Ed “Accents,” by Robertino Zambrano, which animates a poem by Denice Frohman, who also voices this celebration of her mother, and of the liveliness of words and unique voices. “You best not tell her to hush,” she advises, giving us another important mantra to embrace. The animation underscores this freedom and exuberance—this love of liveliness and living—as none of the others do.
This more anarchic and playful side of animation—such an essential part of the art form—was certainly in evidence in the competition, however. Five Minutes to Sea, by Natalia Mirzoyan, culls the depths of the human heart in relationship to the greater natural world; it is a film where human and non- comfortably share space and the simple delights of living become clear as time is slowed down and spun out into everything we can imagine. Lia Bertels’s Sweet Night is a kawaii blue symphony of animal yearning and sudden friendship. When a wolf playing an oud is told by an insomniac bear: “What you’re playing is beautiful,” he replies, “Yet, I’m playing my suffering.” Here again we have the essence of good art and animation. Many student films also celebrated and explored pleasure, women’s bodies, and camaraderie: Bath House of Whales, by Kiyama Mizuki, Poetika Anima, by Kriss Sagan, Somewhere Soft, by Satoe Yoshinari, Rollers, by Marta Gennari, and Happy Ending, by EunJu Ara Choi, all deserve mention (and an audience). In Happy Ending, the animation is constructed around the anonymous observations of a Korean prostitute—how she feels about what she does. She asks: “If I revealed my real pleasure, would you say, ‘I am the same as you’?” This question is a powerful one not only in the obvious ways, but as a question about what we value in animation. Cannot one be serious and soft at the same time, or cute and creepy, gentle and adult?
This is certainly not only found in women’s animation. The great Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata are masters at traversing these boundaries, and their success was happily on display at the festival with a screening of Horus, Prince of the Sun (1968), a children’s film that has more to say about communal politics than many an “adult” one. In fact, the work of Takahata, who sadly passed away last year, should forever demonstrate how misguided such dichotomous thinking is. His masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies (1988) could not be more serious, more adult, or more gentle and kawaii. This is also true of Marona’s Fantastic Tale, directed by Anca Damian, which was by far the most experimental and playful feature film in the festival. It is also one of the few that fearlessly embraces an aesthetic of cuteness while also delving deep into serious topics—the most serious of topics: death, love, betrayal, prejudice. That it does so from the perspective of a small, adorable dog with a heart-shaped nose is an even greater achievement. The small, the underfoot, the loyal, the true—it offers an affectionate and even generous critique of human beings from a point of view we seldom consider: an animal’s.
This film was pure pleasure to watch because it told its tale so gently, humbly, and creatively that even its deep sorrows were cathartic rather than dispiriting. The film begins at the end, at the place where all things end—in death. We are first introduced to Marona as she lies crushed on the pavement, wavering on the edge, reflecting on her life; this film is about animation and reanimation. The film already frees us from the restraints of realism even at its point of entry with Marona depicted as charcoal and chalk smudge—a flat drawing barely blinking her eyes as the cars rush by in colorful smears. From here we move to the source—the courtship of Marona’s racist, snobbish father, a Dogo Argentino, and her mother, an elegant “street dog” who proves love is blind. The sequence that follows, of nine puppies nursing and then learning how the human world works, shows us yet more visual styles and moods, including a beautiful sequence about knowledge. “Happiness is a small thing,” Marona says, noting that dogs are far happier than humans, and the film reminds us that in our earliest stages, happiness resides in the parts rather than the whole, a kind of metonymic sublime where a caress, or a voice, or a smell provide complete contentment—a realization we can bring with us into adulthood, or not.
In an interview, Damien stated that her background is in the visual arts rather than animation, and this is obvious in the way she seems freed from the constraints of consistent style or the popular pursuit of realism that often inhibits contemporary animation. The film takes full advantage of the entire visual field as few feature films do, and the cute is combined with a multitude of other aesthetics. More than one animation team worked simultaneously on different parts of the film, with the freedom to innovate and develop independently of the whole. What results is a gorgeous display of disparate styles and attitudes, which are nevertheless held together by the director and by Marona, with her indeed fantastic tail. Damien further explained that she continuously explores options while the animation process is ongoing, searching for the best way to tell the story. Thus the mise-en-scène is developed in tandem with an evolving sense of character, which truly reflects their story and world. For example, Manole the acrobat is focused around the image and idea of line as energy—a fundamental element of animation that is creatively expressed in the fluctuatinglines of his clothing, his undulating body, and the constant change of perspective he engenders. Istvan the architect’s world develops from the image and function of a blueprint, while his mother emerges and retreats from a center of overwhelming pain visualized at the center of her face, and when happy the tiny circular curls of her hair levitate and glow. She even performs a pancake ballet reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Few feature animations bother to give free reign to so many objects that have no narrative purpose in the story—and one wishes they would. Even the man who lifts Marona out of a trash can and sells her to Manole is rendered in meticulous and innovative detail, with tattoos that wiggle and dance. Whereas both Buñuel and I Lost My Body utilize surrealism as a means of expressing their dreams and nightmares—in a fairly traditional sense of the Freudian unconscious—Marona develops a pervasive and almost anarchic hylozoism at times. Hylozoism is the concept that all matter is alive, and this belief permeates the film, giving it compelling connections to early animation (and a welcome change from the plasticness that often sterilizes 3D). The film portrays a life, and universe, in flux and we see that leaving realism (and human perspective) behind only enhances the story. The film uses animation as a means of expressing emotion and character, and Manola’s adorable personality is aptly conveyed through her cuteness and eager engagement, making her pain and fatigue more exacting. Like Manole the acrobat, the film effortlessly glides between seventh heaven and the gutter, taking in the full arc of a life, allowing us to savor and ache for its ephemeral joys.