Fear, Phobia and Animation By Nadezhda Marinchevska

in 32nd Annecy International Animated Film Festival

by Nadezhda Marinchevska

This year, Annecy’s International Animated Film Festival offered diverse focuses on issues from India to Israel, and a range of themes from simple fun to social and political analyses, but it seems that the dark side of human nature was on the minds of many of the world’s animators. Psychoanalytical approaches appeared in a considerable number of films, and were highly appreciated by all the juries — including (surprisingly!) the junior jury, which awarded its prize to Margot, by the Belgian director Gerlando Infuso. Animation has always been involved with the uncanny and mysterious inner life. Ambiguous gestures, phobias and obsessions were often shown on the animated screen to examine the subconscious and investigate the labyrinths of the mind.

Both The Lady on the Threshold (La Dama En El Umbral), by the Spanish director Jorge Dayas, and Berni’s Doll by France’ Yann J., show the human body as an object of destruction, thus symbolizing personal and social downfall and arguably raising some cannibalistic connotations. The artificial textures of 3D animation reinforce this message, contriving to create a sense of the real, of the banal — of lived experience — in these explicitly surreal films.

The Lady on the Threshold, which won the Special Jury Award, is like a waxwork exhibition of cripples without limbs. A young sailor visits his former captain, and is attracted to the captain’s beautiful wife, brutally loses his hand. This act evokes a physical feeling of pain in the viewer — a very difficult task to achieve in animation. Conceived with a “retro” aesthetic, the film is stylized in the manner of 1920s films, although some of the scenes with the lady of the title resemble the beautiful impressionist paintings of Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Berni’s Doll, which earned the Special Distinction of the jury, is a surrealistic story about a factory worker who buys “spare parts” of women from various races and continents to build a female body to satisfy his sexual desires. Berni uses his composed “woman” only for specific functions — the torso for sex, the arms for ironing clothes. But his biggest mistake comes when he buys her a head. Shocking images, repulsive acts and (again!) a retro visual sensibility characterize this very desperate film. Both Jorge Dayas and Yann J. count on gaining an insight into the eerie sides of human nature and state their wariness of a total collapse of humanity where no humor will be acceptable: Aggression, derived from the subconscious, will lead the world to apocalypse.

The psychoanalytical approach in French director Jeremi Clapin’s Skhizein — which won the Audience Award — is totally different: His Henri is hit by a meteorite and must exist 91 centimeters away from himself. A funny confession to his shrink extends the Woody Allen’s ironic analyses of one’s own complexes by physically showing them in a quite entertaining way.

Another unconventional film about duality is My Happy End, a German-Bulgarian production directed by Milen Vitanov. This charming look at a divided mind is narrated through the story of a dog and his personalized tail. Unlike most animators who dig into the human subconscious to find obscure and horrifying secrets and traumas, the Bulgarian director finds friendship, generosity and beautiful dreams. This psychoanalytical joke focuses on the assumption that nobody knows what is going to spring out of his “other end”. The laconic drawing is on the edge of two- and three dimensional images and is by itself a gag. In this case the concept of the body also derives from the idea of tearing to pieces, but with a totally opposite connotation compared to Jorge Dayas’ and Yann J.’s films. When the paper on which the dog is drawn tears in half, two new creatures are created: Each of the dogs now has only two legs. This circumstance places them on a higher step of evolution to the ideal homo sapience that is still intangible in reality. The film received the Special Jury Award for graduation films.

Three of the features in competition were also focused on the subconscious. Bill Plympton, in his Idiots and Angels — which received a Special Distinction for feature film — depicts a crude and abusive man who struggles to get rid of the wings that have suddenly appeared on his back. He embodies the devilish and the divine in a mysterious and surrealist manner. The hiding, chaining and brutal cutting off of his wings is depicted with Plympton’s typical absurdity and black humor. In this film, the animator touches on issues of duality with wit and inventiveness. Actually, the film focuses not only on the fight for (or with) one’s soul and conscience, but also develops the director’s constant themes of sex, greed, and savage or primitive behaviour. The wings themselves become objects of other people’s desire — to make money, and also to fly. In any case, states the director ironically, you have to pay the price for that by doing good deeds, willing or not. And once again, Plympton is extremely good at the grotesque rendering of fat women’s figures. There are funny details and many imaginative gags to support the story, but also some lulls in the action and indistinct moments in the plot.

Fear(s) of the Dark (Peur(s) Du Noir) is a feature created by six directors: Christian Hincker (Blutch), Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti and Richard McGuire. Their film visualizes the most scary nightmares and fears in stylish black-and-white. The eclectic mix of diverse stories and various visual styles is expressive and suggestive. The directors focus on the manias, phobias and obsessions of people who live in terror of insects, decapitation, evil dogs, sexual transformations or even a lack of political consciousness. The eerie atmosphere is also a tribute to horror films, the work of Alfred Hitchcock, or Japanese manga. The artists’ different personal styles range from classical engraving (Burns) to abstract animation (Di Scuillo) to pulsing graphics (Blutch, Mattotti), Japanese styles (Caillou) or beautiful decorative black-on-black images (McGuire).

Unexpectedly, one of the children’s features corresponds quite closely with the ideas of Fear(s) of the Dark. Nocturna (Nocturna, La Nuit Magique), directed by Adria Garcia and Victor Maldonado, shows how a boy’s dread of the dark gives birth to a monster who tries to swallow the stars. But this is an adventure set in a magical fantasy world, with very well-designed characters and fascinating narration, showing children how fear often changes the world for the worse.