2008 CIFF: Fear(s) of the Dark (Peur[s] du noir, 2007)

Directors: Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire

2008 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The hubby and I enjoyed a great Halloween warm-up when we attended the final CIFF showing of Fear(s) of the Dark, an animated horror anthology from France that shows off some of today’s outstanding animators from France, Italy, and the United States, skillfully assembled by artistic director and title-sequence designer Etienne Robial. This was the third animated offering at the CIFF I viewed, and it served to reinforce my feeling throughout the festival that I’ve been missing a great deal by not seeing more animated films.

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Fear(s) of the Dark, a mainly monochromatic film, has five discrete stories—four told beginning to end and one told in episodic fashion throughout the film. It also has interludes in which geometric shapes illustrated and animated by Pierre di Sciullo accompany the voiceover narration of actress/director Nicole Garcia, who details the social and existential fears of a self-absorbed woman (not making a difference, being hopelessly bourgeouis, dying of cancer or in a car wreak). These breaks from the more traditional horror of the other shorts provide a realistic look at the fears most of the film’s viewers actually face. Horror fans might find them distracting, but I was very amused.

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The episodic film, by Blutch, opens the film as a cadaverous-looking man in 18th century dress restrains a team of four ravenous dogs as they walk through a town. Animals scurry for cover but the humans the man and the dogs encounter don’t fare as well as, one by one, the dogs break away and tear a boy, a laborer, and a dancer to pieces both on and off camera. The last dog, still under the man’s control, sees its reflection in a mirror and is mesmerized. The ending is completely unexpected and deeply satisfying. The animation is energetic, communicating the chaos driving these dogs and their master onward.

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The first short, by Black Hole comic book creator Charles Burns, tells the story of a lonely boy named Eric (poignantly voiced by the recently deceased Guillaume DePardieu) whose isolated home in the country affords him few opportunities for social intercourse. His interest in the nature around him includes a fascination with insects, which he collects. One day he finds what looks like a praying mantis in a earthenware jug wedged between two tree limbs. He plucks the insect up with tweezers and drops it into a specimen jar. For some reason, he decides to hide the jar under his bed before going down for dinner. When he returns, the jar is empty. When Eric is old enough he goes to college, where he studies biology. He’s considered a nerd by everyone but Laura, a pretty classmate who eventually becomes his girlfriend. Their relationship goes kind of haywire, and we learn that Eric’s insect collecting had consequences. This segment seemed like a Twilight Zone episode, with a simple illustration style that seemed right out of the 1950s. The hubby liked it the best, but I liked it the least, mainly because its story seemed so hokey.

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Marie Caillou’s manga/anime-influenced short deals with Sumako, a young girl whose family moves to a new town. They live in a house that backs up to a cemetery where a ferocious samurai warrior is buried. Sumako is taunted in school as the new kid and roughed up by the ancestors of the samurai. She heads into the cemetery out of curiosity and ends up confronting her deepest fears. The story is told in segments as Sumako, held in restraints, is given a dose of sodium pentathol by someone who looks like a mad scientist and told to keep dreaming. Her “cure,” for what we’re not sure until the very end, will only come when she reaches the end of the dream. I was intrigued by this short, its structure making me want to learn what happened next, like a good horror story told around the campfire. The ending may puzzle some people, but one crucial scene inside Sumako’s home telegraphs the horror that we are not allowed to witness.

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Lorenzo Mattotti’s short creates a wonderfully eerie atmosphere right from the start, as a dark figure opens a door and walks in just far enough for a light to strike one wide and sinister eye. The man tells a story from his childhood about the mysterious disappearance of his uncle, whose empty boat returns to the shore of a marsh from which he was poaching fish at night. The man’s young friend, an apparent expert on the natural life of the area, observes a duck with a broken wing and says that the creature was injured by something large and ferocious. More people go missing as rumors of a bog monster stir the town. A tracker/hunter is called in to catch or kill the monster, which he does. But the man’s friend is never seen again. I thought this film was beautifully drawn and suspenseful. When the boy goes searching in the marsh with the rest of the tracking party, he comes upon a “presence” in the reeds. I leaned forward to see what would get him, only to have him respond to the calls of the hunting party to return. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending, but it was a very good effort throughout.

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The last film, by Richard McGuire, was my favorite by far. Beginning with a small black dot on a field of white—a man braving a raging snowstorm—we are plunged into darkness as the man breaks into an abandoned house for shelter. He builds a fire and, rummaging in the dark, finds a bottle of booze in a cabinet. As he drains the bottle, he flips through a photo album he’s found on a table. The proper Victorian family that must have lived in the house is chronicled, including a melancholy daughter who is fond of ripping the heads off her dolls. Later, the daughter, now grown, is shown with her husband. Soon, his head is removed from other pictures. Eventually, every head in the album is cut out. The man dreams of a crazy woman with a butcher knife. But is it a dream? This short shows all the crazy details that a man in a strange, unlit house might imagine or encounter, lending a reality to the proceedings. I found myself squinting to see in the pitch dark and laughing at the all-too-human events that confounded the man, such as a table with uneven legs he tries to correct and his rage at inanimate objects. As the last full film in the collection, it was a great capper to a great evening.

Film trailer

  • fox spoke:
    29th/10/2008 to 12:05 am

    Excellent, excellent write-up Marilyn!
    I wasn’t too enthusiastic when I saw this, but I like your thoughts on it. They’ve made me rethink some of my first impressions, especially about the “Shapes” animation interludes. Initially I was bored by them, but I like the way you describe them as punctuation or contrasts to the stories being told in the other shorts. I still don’t like the animated shapes, but I feel differently about the intent now.
    Also, what did you think about the dancer being attacked the way she was in the wolf dogs short? I thought it was kind of unnecessary.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/10/2008 to 7:55 am

    Thanks, Fox. I like abstract art and was intrigued by the ways the lines moved and intersected, making a final shape. One of my favorite animated shorts is The Dot and the Line, so maybe that’s where I get it.
    As for the dancer, well, for me the attack suggested a Jack the Ripper quality and certainly would have been how a male dog (which I assumed that one was) would go about investigating a female. Didn’t bother me, made sense. Necessary? Well, that’s kind of the artist’s choice, and I thought he made a good one.

  • Daniel spoke:
    29th/10/2008 to 11:22 pm

    I’ve been curious about this for a couple of months, and your trustworthy recommendation makes it pretty much a must-see. I have until mid November, though.
    Great job on CIFF coverage, by the way – time for a well deserved break!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/10/2008 to 8:03 am

    Thanks for the compliment. If I’m a trusted opinion to you, then I must be doing well indeed.
    Yup. Rod has a bunch of stuff waiting in the wings so I can rest my eyes and my brain a bit. I’ll post my wrap-up later today.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    31st/10/2008 to 10:36 pm

    I really loved this film back when I saw it earlier this year. I went to see it mainly as a fan of the artists involved — most of whom are not, incidentally, animators but comic artists and designers. Of the artists, only Marie Caillou and Richard McGuire had worked in animation prior to this film. Charles Burns is a very well-known comic artist and illustrator, whose graphic novel Black Hole is one of the best creepy horror stories around (and is being adapted into a film by David Fincher). Animated, his work here came across a bit too stiff sometimes, but I loved the creepy Twilight Zone-ish story and his art is gorgeous as ever. I agree with you about McGuire’s piece being the best short by far, but then McGuire has always been an arch-formalist genius and that kind of thing naturally appeals to me. I’ve written before about his seminal experimental comic Here and the short movie based on it, both of which are worth checking out. I liked the Blutch and Mattotti pieces mainly for the art, which was beautiful and moody. If you liked the art in Mattotti’s short, check out his nearly wordless comic Chimera, a gorgeous play between abstraction and representation that I could easily imagine being animated. He has a very good sense of motion even in his comics. I also appreciated the abstract di Sciullo segment (woo! a shoutout to The Dot & the Line, awesome!), but Caillou’s faux-manga style was shrill and did nothing for me.
    Anyway, a great writeup, I enjoyed checking out your thoughts, especially since it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/11/2008 to 8:57 am

    Thanks, Ed. It’s always nice to have someone who really knows and follows illustration and animation stop by with some needed corrections and expansions. I do remember your write-up of this film (it was right before your long break, right?), but yes, it has been a while and I was able to come to the collection with a relatively virgin outlook. I agree that Blutch’s and Mattotti’s work stands out more for the illustration that the story lines, but they both set a mood and came pretty close to rounding out their stories perfectly.

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