Monday, August 18, 2008

French Auteurs in CGI

Last week I have seen two French films that use computer generated 3D animation in explicitly non-photo-realistic ways. I finally managed to see Azur et Asmar (a synopsis can be found here) which has been around for almost two years now. In addition to that, I had the opportunity to see Skhizein – one of my Annecy favorites – again on the big screen. Both of them deal with delicate subject matter. As different as they may be stylistically, they display a few substantial similarities. For one thing, both of them rely heavily on straight front and side views as well as integration of two-dimensional elements.

Jérémy Clapin’s Skhizein tells the story of a lonely man who is exactly 91cm besides himself. This premise is taken seriously as we share the protagonist’s perspective. Although it allows for some amusing scenes, we always empathize with the misunderstood man. The escalating schizophrenic episodes feel neither ridiculous nor sentimental. Right from the beginning we are completely immersed in his distorted world. The tension then builds carefully with perfect timing and pacing.

A lot of shots are either head-on or bird’s eye. These strict setups reduce the three dimensional space to mere planes, so we can clearly see the 91cm distance between the protagonist and his world. Un-hasty camera moves and occasionally different angles support the atmospheric narrative flow gently.

Although the character looks quite different from the sets, we accept him as part of the 3D world without difficulty. His simple two-dimensional face is mounted on a 3D ball which works perfectly. Also his head is much bigger than the rest of his body due to the fact that this is all in his head.

I believed in this stylized character much more than in Michel Ozelot’s stiff “princes”. In fact, the awkward character animation prevented me from enjoying this modern fairy tale all that much. Nevertheless, I found it highly interesting and sometimes stunningly beautiful.

It is definitely worth a closer look because stiff animation may only be the most obvious reason why Azur et Asmar is less accessible to general audiences than traditional fairy tales. Contrary to films like Snow White (or even Skhizein, for that matter) we are not asked to identify with either of the characters. Ozelot escapes the pitfalls of psychological realism by adhering to abstract types rather than specific individuals. Relatively generic character design and stilted voice acting are further emphasizing this distancing effect.

Most of the time, the movie feels as emotionally distancing as an oriental version of Brecht’s epic theatre. The simple story is told in a manner that prevents immersion. We as spectators are required to critically look upon the characters’ action and draw our own conclusions. Simple as it looks on the surface, this is a fairy tale with a complex message at its heart. As a result, I found myself questioning my own (unexpected) reaction to ethnic stereotypes throughout the movie. In the beginning, I automatically thought of Azur as an arrogant brat, mainly based on his aristocratic origin and his racist father, although he looked and acted absolutely the same as Asmar (his Arab foster brother). The downside of this is that the plot is becoming increasingly uninteresting.

There are other things to marvel at, though. While the characters’ plastic doll faces have not been working for me, I still liked the fact that their clothes were mainly flat color planes without any shading or outlines. It is interesting, how Michel Ozelot sticks to his trademark side, front and sometimes ¾ views even in 3D. I couldn’t help thinking how wonderful this film could have been, had it been made with cut-out figures. Often, Lotte Reiniger’s Prinz Achmed comes to mind, which certainly is no coincidence given Ozelot’s past.

Being a movie about tolerance, it has to address questions of belief. It does so by contrasting (fictitious) superstitions rather than religion. Although we see the Arab world from a distinctly Western point of view, we don’t share Azur’s perspective for two reasons: first of all, he speaks French and Arab, yet we never get subtitles for the Arab dialogue. Secondly, Azur chooses to be blind while exploring the Arab world, because his blue eyes would offend the locals.

This is exploited by the talkative Crapoux, a character who is visually fairly different from the rest. He looks at everything from a frustrated Frenchman’s perspective, his whole life is based on lies. So he actually has a more specific face, with eyes hidden behind heavy glasses and clothes textured with dirt. I’d even say, he was animated differently, more cartoony.

It’s symptomatic that he complains that “they have no grey” while being carried through a vibrantly colorful marketplace. Sometimes there are more saturated primary and secondary colors competing for attention than I have ever seen on a movie screen before. Somehow this is in-keeping with the basic theme that everybody may be different yet no one (color) should be favoured. Although at times I was hopelessly lost in terms of where to look at, there are some beautiful compositions involving geometric shapes and a wealth of details. The more muted settings seem to be associated with poor people.

In the most stylized scenes there are touching and strikingly beautiful moments, for example, when Azur opens his eyes to prove his identity to his foster mother or when the fairy of the Djinns illuminates the hall of obscurity.

Both of these films show us what might be possible in CG animation (without even attempting subtle acting) with the necessary restrictions and a strong personal style.

Jérémy Clapin’s website

Skhizein: official site

Clapin’s Une histoire vertebrale (backbone story) on youtube

Azur et Asmar: English official site

While both of these films are clearly targeted at adults, the Arabian Nights feel of Azur et Asmar might also attract younger children. In fact, if you look at the English trailer, it comes across more like a low-budget Prince of Egypt than a poetic tale in the tradition of Cocteau’s la Belle et la Bête (1946).

Ozelot’s Prince et Princesse on youtube

No comments: