Avril et le Monde Truqué

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Almost every film made is a film about a character who has a problem that needs to be solved, and the audience are taken on a the journey with them as they try to solve that problem. These films can come in the form of Star Wars, where the greater good serves as the moral compass of the film, battling the evil that tries to take over; a Coen Brothers movie, where morals usually don’t exist and characters are simply trying to get what they want; or a film like Avril et le Monde Truqué (April and the Extraordinary World), a story that shows us an alternate version of a steampunk world, with April at the centre, learning and growing as each revelation about the society she lives in is revealed to her.

Studio Ghibli’s recent retirement from animation is still looming over every animation I watch. I thought no more Ghibli films meant no more hand-drawn, intricate portraits of unique worlds, no more subtle nuances of a character that most producers would find unnecessary, and no more quiet films. Avril et le Monde Truqué is a gentle reminder to the world of animation that this is not true.

Inspired by the style of cartoonist Jarcques Tardi, the alternate steampunk universe – that co-director Christian Desmares describes as ‘a retro-futurist adventure’ – it is easy to feel as though you are immediately part of this universe, and that’s because we see the majority of the film through Avril’s (April’s) eyes. The introduction of the film places audiences in 1870, just a day before the Franco-Prussian war. Avril’s great-grandfather, under the order of Emperor Napoleon III, is trying to create a serum that makes their soldiers invincible. However, the result – at the fault of Napoleon and his soldiers – is an explosion, causing them all to die. The colour palette here is dark and almost dystopian, with the blues and greens standing out as if they are illuminated, and the dystopian atmosphere foreshadowing what is to come. This time-frame ends with an iris transition to the next time-zone, where audiences are informed Einstein and Fermi have gone missing, resulting in no creation of electricity or other technological developments. So, society survives off of burning charcoal/wood, resulting in a war that lasts all the way to a now grown-up Avril in 1941. She is on her own, thinks her parents are dead, and only has a talking cat for company.

This sounds bleak, but thanks to the humour and lovingly drawn animation, this film feels just as comforting as a Studio Ghibli film. While France definitely doesn’t have two Eiffel Towers and trains certainly don’t transport through the air, Avril et le Monde Truqué feels at times as if it is a love letter to Paris. There is a focus on the good of humanity through the morally-confused Julius, a perpetual, unbreakable bond through Avril and her Murakami-style talking cat Darwin, and a parent-child bond that saves their lives and the world. Moreover, with what seems to be a reference to Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle in a scene where Avril’s grandfather’s home gets legs and arms, it is apparent directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci have good reference points, resulting in an animation that makes adults feel like they are genuinely on an adventure with Avril, seeing Paris and the world beneath as she sees it.

While Avril herself is concerned with the serum and helping humanity, – with meta and great missions and adventures – it is clear the film itself uses these great adventures to focus on the smaller, yet just as important, aspects of life, with the final scene of the film encapsulating its magic.

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Walter Presents: Deutschland ’83

Since the beginning of this year, Channel 4 have started airing programmes selected by a film buff called Walter (click the link to find out more about him). These programmes are all foreign dramas, ranging from a supposedly innocent woman being Locked Up in a private prison in Spain; a group of Outlaws; and a group of people forming a Resistance in Nazi Germany.

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So far, I have watched three of the many dramas Walter has selected for Channel 4, and since they have all proved better than much of what is on British and American television, I have decided I’m going to try and watch every series he presents. Therefore, over the course of the next few months/year/however long it takes me to get over my procrastination, I’ll be writing short posts on each show I’m watching — most likely after I have finished the series.

A bit of background: I have always loved foreign cinema, be it Spanish fairytales like Pan’s Labyrinth or Italian Neo-Realists like Bicycle Thieves, but I’ve never really watched or had an interest for foreign dramas. My first introduction to the world was probably through the Nordic-Noir adaptation of The Missing by the BBC, until one night I saw a trailer for Walter Presents and was introduced to a new world of television. The first introduction to this world was through Deutschland ’83, which has one of my favourite opening titles sequence ever, and I would say this is the best way to ‘get into’ the free foreign dramas Walter has picked on All 4, mainly due to the quality of the show. 

The German thriller set in 1983 presents a divided Germany through the political and social iconography of the Berlin Wall. Audiences see this divided Germany through the eyes of Jonas Nay’s character Martin, a young officer who wants to serve his country.  As the show progresses, we see that it is not simply Germany that is divided between the East and the West, but the characters too. Nay is divided between doing what he believes is right versus what others believe is right; his girlfriend back at the East is divided between two sets of important secrets; his mother by her health and honesty; along with Nay’s roommate, Alex Edel (played by Ludwig Trepte) divided between what his father wants him to be against who he really is.

In fact, there is not one moment in the show where the Berlin wall is shown on camera as a major plot point or a character in itself (considering the effects the wall had, it certainly would have been very easily to make the Berlin wall a character within the film, much like Gothic directors use houses as characters), apart from some brief library-archived shots on television screens. Instead, Deutschland‘s directors have to create the split through dress codes, iconography and mise-en-scene, and they certainly execute it well:

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"Deutschland!"
L to R, Jonas Nay and Carina Wiese – in the SundanceTV original series “Deutschland 83” – Photo Credit: Laura Deschner

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Note how Annett Schneider (Sonja Gerhardt) and Martin’s mother (Carina N. Wiese) are often shown outside in nature, and usually wearing free flowing, comfortable clothes. To immediately juxtapose this we have both Martin’s rigid uniform as well as his aunt’s neat, blocky dress code, which later on corresponds to her surroundings in the West. From looking at the smaller aspects of Deutschland ’83 – by looking beyond its impressive narrative and characters – you will be able to find micro-elements like the characters’ dress codes corresponding to certain surroundings, and realise how much detail the creators of this programme have put in.

‘It is a privilege to be timeless’: On Time in Orphée (Jean Cocteau, 1950)

Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphée is the retelling of the classic Greek myth on the legend Orpheus, in which Orpheus has to travel to Hades in order to save his love, Eurydice. However, Orphée presents things differently, as Orpheus (played by Cocteau’s lover and the wonderfully handsome, Jean Marais) finds himself falling in love with a princess, who is Death, that came to visit him in a local café. Unlike La Belle et La Bête (1947), in which the protagonists are (arguably) awarded a happy ending, Orphée finishes in a much more somber tone, reminding audiences what has been communicated throughout the film thanks to the constant shots of mirrors and reflections; that love, no matter what time or place you are in, can never be defined or translated. However, the films are similar in that they both present an idiosyncratic and poetic interpretation of time travel – Belle travels to and from the Beast using a lavish glove as a transportation device, while Orpheus and co. glide through mirrors into Hades; whilst one travels within the confines of the same world and the other from life and death, the scope and breadth of the distance they travel to and from remains just as impactful due to the reasons for doing so.

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Just like Belle transporting back to her home is futile due to her love for the Beast, Orpheus knows that traveling to Hades in order to save Eurydice is in vain since he evidently is not going for “both” of them, as he explains to Death’s driver, Heurtebise, but for Death herself. Yet, the Death he is striving after is his own death; this is unrequited love at its greatest peak, as for Orpheus to be with Death would be fruitless, since the only way this could happen is if he were to die. It is here we can draw parallels to the filmmaker’s life as Cocteau and Marais’s relationship was affected by the fascist air left in the remnants of the war – perhaps, at one point, to the infamous lovers, they felt their love was only possible if it were to transcend the very essence of time itself, and the only way that is possible, according to this film, is through death.

The voiceover at the opening of the film declares, “it is a privilege of legends to be timeless.” This, along with the dramatic, non-diegetic composition by Georges Auric (whom also worked on La Belle), and the well-known tale of Orpheus all draw the spectator in to the dramatic, grandiose setting; the inevitable decline from this state begins as soon as Death appears. Ginette Vincendeau describes the legendary Greek’s humanisation yet transcendence perfectly in her essay for the BFI, stating the film “navigates between myth and realism, boulevard theatre and surrealist poetry, the fantastique and post-war politics.” The point here, in terms of the film’s time travel theory, is that there is none: instead it’s an abstract, poetic concept that would play on the radio channel Marais’s character becomes obsessed with.

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The dolly shots presented in the Hades sequences (which have inspired other directors, for example Spike Lee) by director of photography Nicolas Hayer emphasise the point of time travel in the film: it is supposed to be poetic and outlandish because the form of time travel the film manifests is something we see everyday; the decaying of our faces and exacerbation of our personality. Heurtebise was not wrong when he declared that it “takes long to die,” yet, this film reminds viewers that through art, in all its forms, audiences can time travel to different worlds.

Is it a coincidence that it’s getting closer and closer?

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WARNING: if you haven’t seen Les Diaboliques, then go away and watch it right now and come back. Seriously.

Okay, now that all of the people who have seen this film are here I can provide an extremely accurate reconstruction of my reaction to the ending: OH MY GOD?! WHAT? *lots of incoherent words, eyes bulging, me standing up from my chair and shaking my head in confusion.*

The film begins by introducing us to the boarding school, which is run by a sadistic headmaster, Michael Delassalle (played by Paul Meurisse), and his wife Christina (Vera Clouzot). We soon discover the headmaster has a mistress (Nicole Horner, played by Simone Signoret), and quickly the wife and mistress devise a plan to kill Delassalle so they can escape from him, and Christina can be in control of the boarding school again (it’s all funded by her, anyway).

Long story short: Christina gets kind of annoying because she’s like ‘oh I’ll do it let’s go’ and then two seconds later is like ‘wait, no, let’s not do it,’ but considering she was preparing to murder her husband all while being ill, I’ll let her off. This also makes her character more dimensional and realistic because I think that’s exactly how I would’ve reacted. Eventually they do it (by driving a flat that Nicole is a tenant of and then calling the husband/jerk/asshole to come to the flat) and it’s awesome and everything you weren’t expecting and the narrative just gets more and more intricate and delicate and then BAM. The ending.

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“Surprise, bitch. I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.”

I actually quite admire Nicole Horner for her ruthlessness; she played being the supportive friend very well and fooled me and Christina and everyone in the world.

However, because there are a million reviews of this film on the Internet, I’m not going to bother writing and analysing the ending and the build up to it, as I’m sure there’s enough in-depth reviews on this out there (Rogert Ebert, duh). So instead, I’m just going to analyse it as a whole film and hope this doesn’t come up sounding like an essay for school.

With the release of Gone Girl still looming over us all, thrillers, whodunits and plot twist films seem to be making a come back. But, this film is probably the best one I’ll ever see. It’s Gone Girl, but Gone Right (nudge, nudge). Les Diaboliques manages to create a raw, completely unexpected and intricate narrative without substituting the shots or depth of characters or score for it.

The three main characters are all multi-faceted and provide the narrative something. But, it’s not just these three that prove to be more than cardboard cutouts of people; the supporting characters also stand alone, for example the wife and husband: they could easily have a whole film dedicated to themselves — from the husband’s need for silence and the wife’s love for listening to the radio, it’s clear to see these are characters that have been thought about.

The shots have depth, too. They are suggestive, interesting and completely draw the watcher in. They add to the experience of the shock factor of the film and prove to show that cinema is art.

One of my favourite sequence of shots from this film, and perhaps every film I’ve watched, is towards the end when Christina is running through the school, and the shadows and beams of light mix showing her state of mind: reality mixed with the paranoia that darkness brings.

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It’s clear too how and where Hitchock drew inspiration from the cinematography and directorial skills for Psycho. We see the classic drain shots, the voyeuristic complexities brought to audiences in the bathroom, and the shadows.

Les Diaboliques is intriguing, original, and most importantly, a vital pioneer for the surge in psychological horror films.

"Do not be evil! Do not destroy the interest that could take your friends to this movie. Do not tell them what you saw. Thank you.”
“Do not be evil! Do not destroy the interest that could take your friends to this movie. Do not tell them what you saw. Thank you.”