Friday 10 December 2010

The Tragic Brilliance of Sylvain Chomet

(Cinemascope thanks guest contributor Ms. Camiele White for her latest contribution. This wonderful article is on iconoclastic French filmmaker & artist Sylvain Chomet and his irreverent body of work. More details on Ms. White may be found below the post)

Once upon a time in the mind of a poet, there was a small, dimly lit cottage. In this cottage lived a brain, two narrow eyes, a grinning mouth, and two crooked hands. The brain, the two narrow eyes, the grinning mouth, and the two crooked hands were sitting around the table for tea. While the tea was being prepared, there came a knock at the door. The crooked hands opened the door. At the opening stood a figure draped in a silk, black cloak and wearing silk, black gloves. Without saying a word, the cloaked figure walked into the room and made itself comfortable at the small wooden table. The brain began to shudder; the two narrow eyes became even narrower; the grinning mouth grimaced. The crooked hands, however, rested on the table, fingers interlaced, and waited. The cloaked figure pushed forward a small gilded chest, encrusted with ruby rose petals. On the top of the chest was inscribed the words: Offer me your most prized possession and I shall give you a special treasure.

Sylvain Chomet has created some of the most tragic, elegant, twisted stories in film history. Though his career has tumultuous, it would be irresponsible for any animator worth his salt to deny the sheer potency of the man’s genius. The above story seems to me a fable of talents. Is it the mind, the eyes, the mouth, or the hands that makes a man truly a master of his craft?

As far as artists go, Sylvain Chomet wasn’t any different than most students who want to make their mark on the world. He started in ordinary fashion – raised in Maisons-Laffitte, Yvelines, near Paris, he attended a high school for the arts and published his first comic in 1986, four years after his graduation from high school. As many up-and-coming artists with an eye for the extraordinary (despite their surroundings), he moved to London to fulfil his destiny as an animator at the Richard Purdum studio.

The brain gave up its home in order to receive inspiration. In 1996, Chomet completed work on his first short film, La Vieille Dame et les pigeons. This is the tragic tale of a starving beat cop in Paris. He spends the day trudging through parks until he comes across a parade of corpulent pigeons. He finds out that these obese birds are being fed the most delectable delights that a French patisserie has to offer. While he goes home to a half nibbled sardine, these dirty birds are happier than pigs in shit, eating foods he can only imagine. He concocts a plan to infiltrate the woman’s home and eat like a king. He fashions himself an oversized pigeon costume, head complete with a trapdoor mouth, and follows the woman to her flat – full of doilies, heirlooms, and albums full of pictures of...pigeons? Never mind, he’s only interested in her refrigerator. And what a feast he encounters: sweets, meats, and all the luscious treats his heart desires. Soon he begins to show signs of his overindulgence. On Christmas Eve, our robust copper finds himself in a drunken stupor at la vieille dame’s flat. He sputters and wobbles about until he stumbles upon a room leading out from her kitchen. He finds her sharpening oversized gardening clippers and also discovers he isn’t the first to try this stunt of dressing up as an animal --as a fat man dressed in a cat costume also partakes in the butter and chocolate la vieille dame offers. Once discovered, the old woman is after the officer with her sharpened hedge clippers and traps him atop a cabinet next to her top floor window. In an attempt to escape, he wobbles, topples, and plummets five stories to the concrete below. Fade to black...

The two narrow eyes gave up friendship in order to receive vision. In 2003, Chomet released his first full length feature, Les Triplettes de Belleville. As a true masterpiece of subtle grotesqueness, the film is a marvel. We’re transported to the fictional American city of Belleville – a pisstake on New York City. We’re first introduced to the svelte Triplets singing in front of a packed house of oversized Americans. The story then fast forwards to the future where a grandmother and her grandson are watching this old black and white clip. Grandma notices her grandson is unhappy and soon discovers his love of cycling --perhaps a lingering memory from parents he never really knew. She buys him a used tricycle, thus beginning his obsession with Le Tour de France. When the grandson is all grown up and competing in the race, he becomes the victim of a betting scam in which bikers are kidnapped and forced to race non-stop on a makeshift bike track in front of mobsters betting on who will win the endless marathon. The film takes us through Grandma’s search for her grandson where she, and her corpulent puppy, Bruno, meet the illustrious Triplets one night in an alley. They devise a plan to rescue her grandson, infiltrating the mob headquarters and taking her grandson back. Along the way, the audience experiences twisted animation, surprising sound effects, and Chomet’s warped sense of humour. However, his notoriety came at a cost. Upon release of this cinematic masterpiece, his long time collaborator, Nicolas de Crécy accused Chomet of plagiarising his graphic novel Le Bibendum Celeste. At this turn of events, Chomet’s credibility was tarnished.

The grinning mouth gave up laughter in order to produce silence. It’s around the controversy surrounding Les Triplettes de Belleville that Chomet’s relationship with the film industry became complicated (to put it mildly). Three films that were intended to be released three years ago had been either stalled or scrapped entirely. In 2005, he was set to release a film tentatively titled Barbacoa. Production was halted because of lack of funding. Chomet had the desire to produce animating talent from his school of artistic philosophy, as he found most animators from the British ideology underwhelming. The Django Films studio was set up in Edinburgh, Scotland with the intention of employing 250 artists and producing incredible animation. Beset with early funding problems (the problems cited as holding back production of the first animated film to come from the studio, Barbacoa), and lacking the funding necessary to create what was to be dubbed “the Scottish Simpsons”, the studio was shut down. To top of a very turbulent seven years following his greatest cinematic success, Les Triplettes, his image was further smeared in 2008 by very public attacks on his character when he was fired as director of The Tale of Despereaux by the film’s producer, Gary Ross. Chomet was later cited as saying he “hated the creative environment”.

The two crooked hands gave up the company of the cloaked figure for the traits the others already possessed. In 2010, Chomet released L’Illusioniste, a film based on a script by Jacques Tati. The film is a love note from a father to his estranged daughter and is more traditionally animated than Chomet’s previous endeavours. Though its release was stalled for three years, the film is still heralded as a masterpiece, on par with some of the cinematic brilliance of his previous work. This was the Sylvain Chomet that everyone had come to adore and fear --a mind as brilliant as it was twisted and disturbed.

Our fable ends with the cloaked figure leaving the small cottage, all the gifts handed out. The brain, who could never return to his home, found his thoughts cluttered. The narrow eyes, lonely and depressed, saw muddled visions dance before them. The grinning mouth never laughed again, only being able to stay silent. The two crooked hands, patient and crafting, discovered that everyone else had given up their happiness in order to be given gifts they’d already possessed. The hands took these, his new gifts of wit, sight, and laughter, and created what amounted to the most marvellous masterpieces birthed from a poet and a con artist: two professions that tend to go hand in gnarled hand.

The moral: be wise enough to know your own inspiration; be shrewd enough to see your own vision; laugh as though the world is full of silence; and let your hands be patient enough to create.

There is pure beauty and raw sex in everything.

I have a keen interest in all things that shed light and colour in this dark and, at times, uninspiring world. I love film, all film --ranging from Japanese and Korean horror, to nonsensical action films. The one qualification is that it must, must entertain me. As much as I love watching film, I love even more to write about it. Right now, I get my jabberjaw jollies writing about Halloween costumes. If you want to give me a buzz, I can be reached at cmlewhite at gmail [dot] com.


Darya Antonovna Papko said...

Loved L’Illusioniste, thought it was so very well done! I thought it was a love letter to his daughter as well!! It is really sad that they had to go their separate ways. Such great humour, especially the diva rabbit :) :)

Shubhajit said...

Thanks Darya for stopping by, and expressing your love for the film. Chomet's works certainly deserves a far wider audience. Keep visiting.

Sam Juliano said...

I simply can't wait to see THE ILLUSIONIST, and certainly will do so as soon as it opens here! I very much appreciate such a magnificent essay that recognizes this major talent and the previous work THE TRIPLETS OF BELLVILLE, which I loved. Let's hope this new film brings Chomet the wide audience he deserves too!

Shubhajit said...

Thanks a lot Sam for appreciating Ms. White's article. I concur with you. I too am really interested in watching his Illusionist, and hope that Chomet gets the acclaim and recognition he absolutely deserves.