CEL Mates: Fear(s) of the Dark

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CEL Mates is a new feature about alternative animated films you may not have seen, but probably should; outside of the Disney/Pixar, Dreamworks and Studio Ghibli fare that dominate the world of animation. Let’s kick things off with a film definitely not for the kids.

Fear(s) of the Dark (or in its native tongue, Peur(s) du Noir) is an animated French portmanteau film from 2007 comprised of six segments, each one monochromatic, and each addressing the subject of fear. The Saul Bass inspired opening titles list a group of international illustrators and comic book authors as the collaborating directors: French illustrators Blutch, Marie Caillou and Pierre di Sciullo, Italian comics writer Lorenzo Mattotti, and American comics writers and illustrators Richard McGuire.

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All of the sections have their own unique take on the subject matter, and a distinct visual style from one another. Blutch’s contribution is a wordless tale of a well dressed but supremely sinister Renaissance-era man prowling through a crumbling Italian town with four savage dogs that he lets loose on hapless victims, one by one. It’s presented in a hand drawn style reminiscent (rather appropriately) of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s pencil sketches from his notebooks. In stark stylistic contrast is Marie Caillou’s clean, minimal and washed out story of a young Japanese girl in a psychiatric hospital repeatedly being forced to relive either a recurring nightmare, or her own personal memories of supernatural forces through to their grisly conclusion.

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Despite the obvious artistic differences, parallels run between the two in their depiction of fear: loss of personal autonomy, uncontrollable malevolent forces and ghoulish sadists appear in both of these stories in some form or another, all relatively common fears to some degree. And, of course, flying one legged skeleton cyclops umbrellas. That old chestnut. In starker contrast to either of these are the short interval sections that segue one narrative to the next, directed by Pierre di Sciullo. Comprised of abstract morphing shapes that parallel the fears listed in the monologue of an unknown woman, from the everyday and banal (indigestion) to the existential (mediocrity, contributing to the death of the planet), to the political (fear of actually being a right wing racist and just kidding yourself), these transitional musings arguably contain the most relatable and everyday fears shared by the common man. These are the scariest geometric shapes since HAL 9000.

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The most recognisable name attached to the project is that of renowned graphic novelist Charles Burns, and the short story he puts forward is exactly the gruesome body horror in medieval woodcut style that has made him such a respected name in the comics world. In fact, the story of Eric, a meek entomologist who finds a mysterious humanoid insect in his youth, loses it, and is subsequently haunted by its presence from the shadows, could easily be a story arc right out of Burns’ seminal work, Black Hole. Disturbing, disgusting, but beautifully animated, it really is Burns’ iconic style brought to life. An absolute must see for any fan of his work.

However, the closing section directed by Richard McGuire is the highlight of the film, both in terms of sheer terror, and in its ingenious use of form. A burly, impressively moustachioed traveller takes shelter from the snow in an abandoned house, one completely devoid of light. We are afforded only small glimpses of his surroundings (made up of clean white linework that vividly leaps out from the frame) through what little light the man is able to scrape together, like an old paraffin lamp. As such, we only see what the traveller sees as he moves about the house. Or, in a couple of heart stopping moments, the things he fails to see.

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Often, the frame is simply black, McGuire allowing the brilliantly orchestrated sound design to take centre stage. He stated in an interview with AIGA that when planning the material, he went back and analyzed all the things that scared him in films before, and realized “In some cases it’s purely sound; in a lot of cases it’s what you don’t see”. The sequence that first gives us a sense that not all is right in the house is a perfect marriage of unsettling music (Erik Satie’s beautifully eerie Gnossiennes no. 6) and the ‘things we don’t see’: the traveller flicks through a dusty photo album and witnesses a child growing up into presumably the mistress of the house. However, she clearly has no problem cutting people out of her life, as the more pages he turns, the fewer heads are present in the photographs…

To say any more would be spoiling things, and the final sequence especially is something that can’t be done justice in words alone. Watch it, but maybe not alone.

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