aka April and the Extraordinary World
Most of the film takes place in an alternative 1941, where France is still
ruled by an emperor Napoleon, and where the disappearance of most scientists
some decades ago has added scientific stagnation to the cultural one. While the
world is dominated by a lot of rather nifty steam devices, mankind has paid the
price for that by exhausting first the Earth’s coal supply and now having
nearly destroyed all of the plant life too. Consequently, all that steampunk
science is covered with soot and rust, and what’s that “sun” you speak of?
The few scientists who don’t disappear are pressed into developing weapons,
so that France can get at North America’s tree reserves. Our heroine, Avril
(Marion Cotillard), is the daughter of a family of scientists who escaped the
strange abductions as well as getting pressed into slave labour by their
government for quite some time, but just when they seem to have achieved their
big family goal – creating the Ultimate Serum that’ll make people ageless and
invulnerable – the secret police come knocking. The ensuing chase sequence ends
with Avril’s parents abducted by mysterious forces, her grandfather fleeing to
parts unknown and the little girl just barely escaping a nice stay in an
orphanage together with her talking cat Darwin (Philippe Katerine).
Ten years later, in 1941, Avril is living in a secret lair in a statue, still
trying to produce the family’s serum, and earning her keep with a bit of
pickpocketing. Soon, she’ll go through a series of adventures that’ll reunite
her with her grandfather, lead her to discover what happens to the disappearing
scientists, let her find love, and perhaps even give her the chance to change
her world for the better.
Christian Desmares’s and Franck Ekinci’s film is a particularly fine piece of
animated cinema. Inspired by the fantastical part of the works of great comics
artist and writer Jacques Tardi – who is also responsible for some of the
animated design (the rest keeping very much in the spirit of his work) and the
general air of whimsy, intelligence and warmth of the whole affair – the film
uses a more hand-drawn look to its animation, achieving a more personal and
human feel than you get from the big Hollywood animation studios whose every
film stylistically seems very much like the one before. There are some anime who
use this approach of making the digitally animated look more hand-drawn, of
course, but Avril is very much a thing all its own.
There’s a barrage of crazy ideas, homages (the sharp eyes will even spot a
Dalek) and visual worldbuilding running through the film, but instead of feeling
incoherent, everything on screen here is very much of one piece, the incidental
details, the whimsy and the sometimes (again very much in the spirit of Tardi)
very broad yet just as often warmly wry humour coming together to create a
strange world that feels believable by its own logic. That it is also a
delightfully strange world is only the cherry on top.
Plot and world aren’t only inspired by Tardi but also by the 19th century
French scientific romance Tardi himself was inspired by, a field that goes much
further than just the novels of Jules Verne. If you’re like me and still haven’t
taught yourself French, the wonderful Blackcoat Press have translated and published quite a few
books from this era in affordable editions that provide useful context through
knowledgeable forewords. However, the filmmakers clearly didn’t set out to make
a piece of nostalgia porn, so there are many plot elements and ideas, as well
as certain directions of thought, which are very much of our time. This is all
for the better, of course.
Apart from being beautiful to look at and bursting with joyful creativity,
Avril also has a lot of actual warmth, showing characters that fulfil
very traditional roles for this sort of tale (the hero of the piece being a late
teenage girl instead of the more traditional boy really doesn’t change this
aspect in itself) but giving most of them some added humanity that turns talking
plot devices into characters an audience can care about.
All of this adds up to the kind of film that I can’t help but gush about,
where enthusiasm, craftsmanship and art unite to become something very special