Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
September 2017

The Girl Without Hands

Hands by hand

On movement, cryptokinography, modern animation, and the visual/emotional instincts of The Girl Without Hands

The Girl Without Hands
Director: Sébastien Laudenbach
Screenplay: Sébastien Laudenbach, based on the Brothers Grimm story
Starring: Anaïs Demoustier, Jérémie Elkaïm, Philippe Laudenbach, Sacha Bourdo, Olivier Broche and Françoise Lebrun
Not rated / 1 hour, 16 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release
(out of four)

The Girl Without Hands is an act of pure intuition - not just a fluid expression of its state of mind but one of endless spontaneity. In its every frame, it feels like it's creating itself - by moods and impulses. One image breathes the next into existence, one after the other. At times this is almost literal - such as a scene of the eponymous young woman lying on the ground, hair tumbled beneath her head, materializing and dissolving and materializing again, to the very rhythm of breathing itself, as if her breath is what gives her physical form at all.

The entire film behaves this way. It rises and falls like a steady breath, an anxious pulse, an irregular heartbeat. That it's a faithful retelling of a familiar Brothers Grimm story (told many times before, with various names in varied forms) makes its looseness and unpredictability all the more remarkable. It feels, moment to moment, so untethered to expectation or formula, even if you know the story, you can almost be convinced it's simply improvising and experimenting as it goes along. Every moment is a kind of surprise - an emotional response more than a narrative choice, an instinct rather than a plot development. It reveals only what it needs to, only when it must. It is a beautiful enigma, captivating as much for the emotional wounds it exposes as for what it conceals. (In much the same way that people who express themselves judiciously are almost invariably more interesting than those who insist on telling everyone how they feel every second of every day, each gesture in Girl has considerably more impact than do the bigger, brighter animated films that go out of their way to fill in every detail, emotional or otherwise.)

While sophisticated computer animation - and all the technological possibilities it offers - is understandably de rigueur at the major studios, the very best of modern animation still comes, more often than not, in other forms. Hand-drawn, stop-motion, or non-traditional digital work (i.e. Hertzfeldt's World of Tomorrow). The Girl Without Hands - hand-drawn by writer/director Sébastien Laudenbach - is yet another example, one of the most vibrant and singular pieces of animated filmmaking to come along in recent years, mysterious and dreamlike in the way its images propel one another. The film's effect - which is so reliant on the way it moves, and in its splashes of unexpected strokes and colors - makes even more sense when you know a bit about some of the visual principles Laudenbach is working with. His work here is rooted in concepts of cryptokinography - you can see some terrific examples and exercises here - in which images only make sense in motion. Watching Girl, you can see the way Laudenbach's compositions take shape specifically through movement. He seems to be layering drawings and backgrounds on top of each other - so that there are still plenty of images that are clear and memorable even in still form - so I'm not sure if it's a pure expression of this style*, exactly. Yet there's a noticeable spareness to his outlines (of both character and place), which creates a dazzling effect as shapes, shades and shadows move in and out of place from one frame to the next.

* I am nowhere near on expert on the intricacies of cryptokinography, so apologies to anyone more knowledgable than I am if I'm understanding any of it incorrectly.

In that sense of movement, it reminded of certain sequences from Isao Takahata's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. But those scenes were primarily depictions of genuine action - the title character running, bursting through corridors and grasslands and forests. In this film's case, the movement is a constant, but it's the ideas and emotions and states of mind that are moving - and often rapidly. There isn't really "action," but it damn well feels like there is. Whether in motion or otherwise, each character is little more than a rough physical outline - and sometimes those outlines are reduced only to fragments of their bodies. A pair of hands; a swirl of hair; the hem of a piece of clothing. It's the colors and textures behind them that give them meaning - adornments and context clues that express intangible details so the story doesn't have to. I wish I had the vocabulary to properly describe the color choices Laudenbach makes throughout the film, and all that they convey. Never gaudy, his colors are subdued yet majestic, their intensity sneaking up on us; at times it feels like he's found some magical, unknown hue somewhere between the hues we know and expect.

Not to overdo the reference points, but there's a kinship between Girl's animation style and that of this spring's My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea; this is almost like a better, more grown-up incarnation of some of the same notions that drove High School's impressive hand-drawn experiments.

The malleability and minimalist impulses Laudenbach puts to use are a perfect fit - possibly deliberate, possibly serendipitous - for a story in which truths and true natures are perpetually obscured. A miller takes a deal with a clandestine devil, who offers him riches in exchange for whatever is behind his mill ... not realizing his daughter, at that moment, is back there, innocently lounging in one of the trees in his orchard. The same devil - in a different form - later comes for what rightly belongs to him, only to unpleasantly discover the girl is too pure. When he returns and realizes her purity has persisted, he orders the miller to cut off his daughter's hands. He obliges, but she cries her pure tears all over her remaining stumps, and is once again ruined for her would-be possessor.

Still the demon deceives, in lieu of his expected prize. During wartime, notes sent from the girl to her loving husband - a prince - are savagely altered in ways that break both of their hearts. When intentions and sentiments are expressed clearly, they are received in distortion. When assumptions are made, cosmic twists unfurl. One physical form constantly disguises another. That nothing in the story, and nothing of any character, can ever be taken at face value - at least not when the devil's around, anyway - lends itself to the kinds of bold evocations of truth that Laudenbach conjures so gracefully. As simply drawn as it is elaborately conceived, as much a cave painting as a work of bold expressionism, The Girl Without Hands is a familiar tale made mythic by the simplest of creative strokes. It is the rare movie that feels like a nonstop act of spontaneous invention, its very language coming of age in front of our eyes.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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