Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Leave La France! Chapter 2: Death By Pencil

The last year has been a good one for animation. Wall-E cleaned up at the academy awards, Coraline proved how effective and frightening something ostensibly made for kids can be, Waltz With Bashir proved that documentaries can be just as depressing when animated as when done straight, Up asked just how young is too young to know about female infertility and I was able to track down and watch Peur(s) Du Noir, the finest horror anthology in some time. Peur(s) Du Noir or Fear(s) of the Dark is to date one of the only scary animated films I've ever seen that had any intention of being so. It's an omnibus film with six unique takes on what scares us most (one of them actually addresses this question point blank) and some really do get to real nightmarish stuff. I'm no connoisseur of animation (and I'll say it now, I hate anime) but I really do think this one of the more imaginative forays into the rendered world.

Peur(s) Du Noir
by Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre Di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti and Richard McQuire

First-time animator Blutch starts things off with easily the most unsettling of the bunch. A mad aristocrat goes walking with his four enormous hunting dogs. We see him pass a little boy, a group of poor workers and a beautiful dancer for each of whom he lets one dog free to do as they please. How does he plan to rid himself of the last? Pierre di Sciullo's animation runs the length of the film, popping up intermittently. It is a series of blobs and geometric shapes ever changing while voices explain what scares them most. It's not unlike the Sound Track from Fantasia, but without Deems Taylor asking patronizing questions. Charles Burns' next tale is a bit like Lucky McKee's Sick Girl. A young boy catches a strange insect in his youth but one day it escapes from its jar and he thinks it lost, but can't shake the feeling that it lives in his mattress. Years later, he invites a girl over to his apartment and after they spend the night together, she becomes obsessive. She never leaves, she's suspicious of his every move and becomes sexually aggressive. Think it has something to do with the mattress he never threw away and its squatter?

Marie Caillou's entry, like much of her work, fuses Japanese and French culture. A young Japanese girl is bullied at school and finds no respite in dreaming. Her nightmares are David Cronenberg-esque, full of humanoid horrors and animals given horrific new forms. Lorenzo Mattotti's is next and he wins the atmospheric prize. A young boy in an African village recounts an episode from his childhood when a friend went missing. Everyone blamed a monster they could not see or prove existed and the authorities went into a fury trying to catch it. The truth is logical but the story is fantastic. Richard McQuire's playful segment closes the film. A man walks in from a snowstorm into a seemingly abandoned house. There are no lights so he tries to maneuver his way about the place, finding remnants of the house's former inhabitants, scaring himself at every opportunity. Having had his fill of the place, he tries to leave, but he finds it harder than he anticipated.
Despite my greatest grievance, that it could have been scarier, I really enjoyed Peur(s) Du Noir. The structure felt a bit arbitrary as did the selection of animators, but I liked the end result. So, in descending order: Blutch's entry is hands down the most frightening. His style consists of crude pencil drawings which gives the story an unpredictable and troubling feel. There are no words spoken, just eyeball-only conversations before the release of a hound. The aristocrat's eyes are really frightening enough on their own, as are those of the boy the first dog murders. Blutch's segment more than account for the lack of fright in the others as it has everything I like about animation; darkness, violence and strangeness. The final segment, wherein the Aristocrat finds a mirror is perhaps the most satisfyingly creepy. The aristocrat does a devilish dance to celebrate his fooling the dogs, but not for very long; It makes the hair on my neck stand up. Pierre di Scullo's isn't really frightening at all, it's simply a series of lines. The stories aren't particular worrying, but as a transition they could have done worse I suppose. The film is about fear, after all, and this animation gets to the heart of the issue.
Charles Burns' story is rather uncomfortable (nudity on film is a tricky enough thing to do well but cartoon breasts almost always make me squirm because I feel like a teacher is about to come over and confiscate the paper they've been scribbled on and yell at John Lee, a classmate who used to make kids laugh with his drawings) as it deals explicitly with sex and all the ways it can be made terrifying. The story is not entirely original but I like the creepy ending so I give it a pass. Caillou's is the most at odds with the others and not just because it abandons the black-and-white color scheme in favour of turqoise-and-white. It's also done in mock-anime style, which almost put me off of it, but I love those nightmarish creatures the young girl encounters, so all is forgiven. And it's not real anime, anyway. Richard McQuire's has a playful, round sort of style like Burns' but his is a little more inventive. The whole thing is black, save for things that pass into incidental light, like a candle or a fireplace. His use of silence and darkness helps his thesis, which is that what we imagine is almost always worse than what's actually out there.

Lorenzo Mattotti's gets the highest grade from me. Its style is brilliant, a slate grey recreation of an imagined hysteria, the sort you'd expect of the tale Mattotti and writer Jerry Kramsky tell. I think it's no coincidence that it reminded me of many old folk tales, like that of Anansi the Spider or Quetzalcoatl. It gets to what makes tales like this so enchanting: their mystery. It isn't scary, per se, but its knee deep in noir. The beautiful landscapes and claustrophobic interiors are as gorgeous as they are evocative. Mattotti has a gift for story telling. He shows little but says so much. That his story is in the end not supernatural at all makes this all the more effective. He simply puts a frightening spin on modern life and let's implication follow us into our nightmares.
Often omnibus films are weighed down by the weakest link, but here everything flows rather nicely from one to the next and even the few weak spots simply leave you hungry for more of what's to comes. It is all rather dreamlike, much of it getting by on implication or refusing to comment on the unnerving images it serves up, which is perfect. The playfulness of many of the segments might under less special care have seemed too different from the horror to work but thanks to the intoxicating nature of the project I rather enjoyed myself.

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