Sunday, March 9, 2008

Peur(s) du noir

Peur(s) du noir is an anthology film which unites six very different comics artists and graphic designers to tell six stories of horror, fear, and darkness. The artists involved are Americans Charles Burns and Richard McGuire, the Italian charcoal artist Lorenzo Mattotti, and French artists Blutch, Marie Caillou, and Pierre di Sciullo, and each of them brings a unique perspective to the subject "fear of the dark." Unlike with a traditional anthology film, though, Peur(s) du noir does not maintain a rigid separation between the six segments, instead arranging them with fluid transitions from one story to the next, and with several of the segments divided up and themselves used as bridging material. Only the segments by Mattotti, McGuire, and Burns are presented as wholes, while Blutch and di Sciullo provide bridging material, with short chunks of their contributions doled out periodically throughout the film, and Caillou's segment is split in two with other cartoonists' material as an interlude. This presentation ensures that this film works much better as a unified whole than most anthology films of this type, which are typically disjointed affairs of uneven quality. It also helps that, with the exception of Caillou's trite manga-influenced ghost yarn, the quality of the individual pieces is almost uniformly high to begin with, making this a film very much worth exploring for fans of modern comics and animation alike.

The film opens with the first excerpt from the work of the French cartoonist Blutch, mostly known here in the States for the handful of short stories he's had published in various anthologies. His work, with its tendency towards thick blacks and figures defined by the interplay of light and dark areas, is a perfect fit for this project, and his pencil drawings are beautifully translated into movement. The opening few shots, of a quartet of vicious dogs pulling along their master by the leash, are a bit too static, and Blutch's dense pencil shading can sometimes make adjacent areas from different figures blend into each other, so that at several points in these early sequences, for example, the dogs appear to be partially translucent. However, he quickly overcomes this initial stiffness in the animation, and with each subsequent installment of this story throughout the film, his beautiful pencil drawings come more and more to life. The dogs' movements become more fluid and natural, and the use of shadows, creeping along walls in advance of the figures they're attached to, is at times breathtaking. The story itself is minimal, involving a sadistic military officer who roams the countryside like a harbinger of death, periodically releasing one of his dogs on an unsuspecting person he encounters. The dogs' attacks become increasingly graphic and disturbing as the film progresses: the first occurs off-screen, signified only by a scream, and the last is one of the film's most grisly moments, with the dog ripping off the head of its victim and tossing him around like a ragdoll. Used as punctuation, this grim and mysterious little tale works perfectly, setting a tone of macabre terror and inexplicable violence.

The other recurring segment that is stretched out throughout the film is a strange abstract animation by the designer and typographer Pierre di Sciullo, the only artist included in this project who has not previously worked in comics. His contribution consists entirely of abstract patches of black and white, constantly shifting and changing shape, forming patterns of lines or dots, or simply abstract fractal designs and shapeless masses of black. These abstracted patterns are accompanied by a voiceover from a woman who recounts her own "fears," taking a much more liberal approach to the project than the straightforward horror interpretations of the other five artists. Di Sciullo's broad interpretation of the simple concept "fear" includes the fear of political conservatism, racial hatred, and the fear that positive change is an impossibility. This explicitly political, social slant on fear weaves through the film, as di Sciullo's abstract patterns recur at intervals between the other segments, a perpetual reminder of types of fear that are much more grounded in prosaic reality than alien insects, murderous ghosts, or demon dogs.

Charles Burns is a name doubtless familiar to anyone who's followed alternative comics in the last couple of decades, with his teen horror opus Black Hole being his defining work thus far. His contribution shouldn't be any surprise to those who have seen his work before, especially since his is the artistic style that changes the least in the translation from static images to animation. His clean, crisp linework and stark contrast looks like it has leapt right out of the pages of one of his comics and onto the screen, moving fluidly but otherwise largely unchanged. His segment tells the story of an isolated, bookish young man who collects insects and studies them in his room, which he's converted into a makeshift science lab. But when he stumbles across a strange, almost humanoid creature with grasping arms and mandibles like a praying mantis, this weird little insectoid creature begins subtly taking over his life, and ultimately taking over his girlfriend as well. One of Burns' signature themes has always been sexual uneasiness and disgust, and this short film — structured much like a particularly clever Twilight Zone episode, complete with a skin-crawlingly creepy twist ending — is one of his best encapsulations of the strangeness underlying sexuality. In Burns' hands, sex becomes weird, frightening, even disturbing, and though this is ostensibly a kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers tale about insectoid aliens, the real terror here is a more generalized youthful uncertainty about sexuality and relationships. Even before the hapless protagonist's girlfriend becomes an alien, he's pretty much terrified by her and in awe of her, never sure what to say when he's around her (when they're introduced, he even pauses before giving his name). Nobody translates psychological turmoil into visceral body horror like Burns (well, except for David Cronenberg), and this short piece is truly worthy of Burns' comics oeuvre.

In contrast, Marie Caillou's segment, about a young girl haunted by a violent past and tormented by bullies at school, is the one misstep of the bunch, a hackneyed ghost yarn with a cutesy manga-influenced visual style that's jarringly out of place amidst the other contributors' moody, atmospheric images. Caillou comes to this project mainly as a designer and advertising artist with little comics background, and she seems to be on board mainly because she already contributed to the last Prima Linea multi-cartoonist animated project, Loulou et autres loups, a children's film which also featured Richard McGuire. But whereas the always versatile McGuire (whose segment closes this film) is able to adapt his style to pretty much any situation, Caillou seems much better suited to children's fare, and her stylistic choices do little to enhance this generic tale. She does provide some memorably strange imagery in some of the short's extended dream sequences, in a surrealist outpouring of anthropomorphic lanterns, a six-eyed woman's head mounted on the body of a snake, and an umbrella with an eye on the outside and a full skeleton instead of a handle. But these admittedly great images (seemingly cribbed from a wide sampling of horror and fantasy manga) can't compensate for the shrill, aggravating tone of the segment as a whole. Sound is in general a minor problem for Peur(s) du noir, which is hampered at times by an overly bombastic score that tends to overpower the dazzling imagery that the other five artists bring to this project. But just as Caillou's segment is the visual weak link, it also seems to be the worst offender in terms of the sound, continually going off the register with obnoxious sound effects and dense waves of music. Its aural overload certainly works to unsettle and provoke the audience, but not necessarily in the way good horror should — I saw at least a few audience members clutching their ears at some of the more annoying moments of Caillou's segment.

Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti is, like Blutch, a mostly obscure figure in the United States despite an impressive body of work in comics. His reputation in English-speaking regions, such as it is, rests mainly on his slim (and unfortunately long out of print) 1986 volume Fires and a handful of other translated books and stories in anthologies. More recently, the beautiful first issue of his new comic series Chimera, published as part of Fantagraphics Books' "Ignatz" line, pointed the way towards a more abstract, wordless, black and white aesthetic where a richly textured world is slowly developed from an initially sparse spattering of lines. To some extent, it is this latter approach which is carried over into his detailed, expressive charcoal work on this film; his is perhaps the most virtuoso, impressive visual style among these six artists. The scenario, written with Mattotti's frequent collaborator Jerry Kramsky, is a simple story about a mysterious monster terrorizing a rural village, told from the point of a view of a man visiting his hometown and recalling these strange events that occurred there when he was a boy. Mattotti's dense, beautiful renderings create a wholly convincing and living world, sometimes tending towards near-static compositions with very little movement, like a comics panel in isolation, but moving frantically or beautifully when the story calls for it. In one particularly stunning sequence, a family eats dinner in silence in the center of a darkened room, and their small square of light in the center slowly shrinks as the room around them seems to grow bigger and fill with sinister shadows. It evokes the fear of isolation perfectly, depicting a community paralyzed with terror by the unnamed thing stalking them.

The final segment of the film is also the one I was most looking forward to, as an admirer of the small body of work that Richard McGuire has amassed in comics, mainly his acknowledged masterpiece of formal experimentation, "Here" (see my last post on McGuire). McGuire is a remarkably varied artist. Pretty much the only common thread running through his career is his dedication to exploring the formal possibilities of the medium at hand, whether it should be comics, design, music, film, or children's literature. His contribution to this film lives up to this goal, and the result is one of the project's most satisfying offerings, not so much because it's a truly scary horror story (although there are a few creepy moments) but because it precisely deconstructs the way we see in the dark, taking a literal approach to the anthology's title. In McGuire's short, a man wanders through an empty old house he stumbled upon while escaping from a blizzard. It's a classic haunted house set-up, but McGuire is less interested in the ostensible story than he is in the opportunities it provides for playing with light and dark. McGuire bathes the screen in black for the bulk of the short, with the only patches of light being provided organically by whatever light sources the man is able to find: candles, matches, a fireplace. This ingenious conceit allows McGuire to illuminate just limited areas of the screen, creating a kind of dance between light and dark. There are too many brilliant sequences here to mention them all, but a few examples should suffice to give a sense of what McGuire brings to this project. In one scene, a wine bottle rolls off a table and across the floor; once it's outside the light area cast by the fireplace's flames, its rolling motion is signified only by the circular cycling of its white label in the middle of the black. In another sequence, the small circle of light cast by a flickering candle initially seems to illuminate a sinister-looking man's face, looming in the darkness, until the candle moves slightly closer and the change in illumination reveals the face as just a vase of flowers. I've never seen a better demonstration of that well-known perceptual trick where objects in the dark take on anthropomorphic aspects of monsters and lurking killers, until a shift in perspective makes the elements align differently and reveal their true nature. McGuire's commitment to this formal exploration of light and shadow is complete, so much so that when the protagonist is locked in a dark closet at one point, there is a minute or so spent in total darkness, with only the sounds of his struggles indicating the action, until the man pries away a board from the wall to let in a sliver of light from outside. This is a typically rigorous formal experiment from McGuire, but as with all his work, it's not just an empty exercise, but a deep interrogation of the way we see and the way the limits and peculiarities of our vision is linked to our fears.

As a whole, Peur(s) du noir is much more than just the sum of the disparate and individually fascinating shorts that comprise it. It's a sustained treatise on the many faces of terror, from the geopolitical anxiety of di Sciullo's abstract images, to the sexual insecurity of Burns' insect horror, to the exploitation of visual limitations in McGuire's work. These are some stunning works of animation, ranging through a gamut of different styles and different approaches to the title theme.