French Pastel In Russian Style
Conceived as a “Bildungsroman”, Long Way North (Tout en haut du monde) speaks also about the formation of its author, Rémi Chayé. This outstanding debut does not appear in a “no man’s land”: the middle-aged French director came to the profession as first assistant director on the Academy-Award nominated The Secret of Kells (2009, dir. Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey) and at The Painting (Le tableau, 2011, dir. Jean-François Laguionie). The fans of classic animation – more and more a rara avis today – can follow thus the evolution of a style which, after long research, has found last year an occasion to manifest itself.
Fond of Russian painting and of Jules Verne’s writing, Chayé has discovered in the topic, which Claire Paoletti first suggested to him in 2005, the inspiration for an “epoque” film centred in Saint Petersburg of 1882, with an air of crepuscule poetry, whose echoes are present throughout the movie. The protagonist Sasha, the niece of the great aristocrat Oloukine, has inherited from him the courage to tell the truth in front of hypocrites and the ambition to pursue a grand ambition in life. And this is to find the trace of the North Pole expedition led by her grandfather, a man who never returned from the eternal snow and ice.
The film’s political introduction gives it an historical approach, less appropriate for children than for adult spectators, but it is a necessary step in order to configure the portrait of the explorer and his family, with the background of the high world where Sasha’s road begins. On this way, the episode with the girl appearing as a waitress in a tavern is crucial for the credibility of the narrative.
A master of the pale chromatic, and inspired by the postcards and posters of the fin de siècle, Chayé is also a delicate storyteller, keeping in view the critical age of transformations experienced by the heroine, who is characterized by smartness (she embarks on the ship thanks to a pair of earrings) and by mastering her emotions, remaining deaf to the reticence of almost all of the sailors. Her psychological geography is in profound agreement with the subtle variations of the landscape and here Chayé’s ability is obvious: built into blocks of colours without outline, the men seem, on one hand, to disperse in the snow but, on the other hand, have a special strength that gives a reason for this adventure film. The scope format emphasizes these attributes and creates an unforgettable impression, which is proven by the Award of Public received at Annecy in 2015 (and the Animation Film Award that it won a year later in Chemnitz, at the 21st edition of Schlingel).
A special mention was given to Christa Théret, who lent her voice to Sasha. Twice nominated at the César Award for the best hope in woman acting, the young French artist lends a sweet force to her character, making her resemble Miyazaki’s heroines. Overall, the sound design (Guillaume Couturier and Régis Diebold) made a great contribution to dramatizing nature, giving another dimension to this 2D film.
Another key-factor of the epic construction that helped keep the viewer interested until the end is the work of the storyboard and art director Liane-Cho Han Jin Kuang, involved also in other landmarks of contemporary animation, such as Zarafa (2012, dir. Rémi Bezançon, Jean- Christophe Lie) or The Little Prince (2015, dir. Mark Osborne).
A delight for those who love intertextuality, Long Way North makes a series of references to the photos of the pioneers of polar expeditions, and especially to the Antarctic expedition led by Ernest Shackleton. If you wish, you may also find here traces of Jack London’s literature, mainly The Call of the Wild and White Fang.
Even if the budget of 6 million Euros seems huge for a neophyte, it is a medium size for an animated feature, with some impacts upon the style. Thus, Chayé said: “One of the things we had to reduce a lot was the lighting on the animation. I had planned to have animated lighting throughout the whole movie, but was forced to limit that to a certain amount of shots.” As often in art history, these deficits were converted into quality, giving birth to a chef d’oeuvre of modern animation.
Edited by Birgit Beumers
© FIPRESCI 2016