Sunday, January 29, 2017

Avril et le monde truqué (2015)

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 indeed.

No comments: