Les Contes de la Nuit (Berlinale 2011)

I vaguely remember having seen “Le voyage de Kirikou”, Ocelot’s previous masterpiece. When asked for the plot, I wouldn’t be able to recall it, but I remember feeling endeared by the movie. For me, that’s a good thing – connecting a movie with a feeling means the movie left me polarized (and usually in the good way).

When I saw that “Les contes de la nuit”, Ocelot’s newest animation film, was in competition for the Golden Bear, I couldn’t keep myself back: I had to see it. To top it off, I saw the beautiful stills of black characters in front of colourful backdrops. This movie was slick as hell, I thought. And fairy tales? This I’ve got to see.

…Maybe I was expecting too much?

“Are you ready?” “YES!!!”

Les contes de la nuit gives you six fairy tales in a feature film. All tales use the same black characters, colourful backdrop style – but the catch is they do look different. The African fairy tale is brown, whereas the Caribian one looks like a psychedelic dream, and so on. The characters are always shadows, however: you can only see their eyes and the contours of their bodies. But they have different hairstyles and costumes with each story.

The fairy tales are connected by a frame: three people sit inside an abandoned theatre and perform for each other. Or rather: they talk about stories and why they want to tell them. They comment on what they like or dislike. I immediately figured these were the discussions the animators had when they were designing the film and choosing their stories. The reason I knew this: there’s very little talk about the stories themselves – the three people focus mainly on the art style they want to use. This is enhanced by the many pencil drawings they drop onto us at the start of every tale.

There’s no more than this to it, though. Three people talking. Then why have it at all? We never get to know these characters. We don’t know why they’re in that theatre. We don’t know where or what the theatre is. We’re dropped into the movie, they immediately start talking as if they’ve been there forever – like walking into a heated conversation in the pub. Only you never ever find your way into the chat. Ever.

At the end of the movie, they don’t even bother going back to the frame. The movie just ends with the last fairy tale. As if they ran out of money for one final scene to wrap things up. It’s sloppy scriptwriting – and so easy to solve, too: “The sun rises. They say goodbye and go back to their day jobs, promising to meet each other at the same place and time next night. The End.”

Show, don’t tell

The fairy tales themselves are nice enough. I guess everyone’s bound to have a favourite, but I noticed people talking about the ones that made them laugh in particular. The more emotional ones didn’t seem to work that well.

Unfortunately, they all suffered from one bad moviemaking disease: everything was talking. All the time. It would go like this: Two women are sitting on a porch, eating from a bowl. The main character walks by. “Hello, ladies, what are you eating?” We see a close-up of the bowl: the women are very obviously eating bones. “Why, we’re eating bones”, they proudly exclaim.

Show, don’t tell. Especially in animation, one of those very few mediums where making silent films is not a thing of the past. But no: Les contes de la nuit oddly chooses to express everything in words. Maybe it’s because they’re telling fairy tales, and these fairy tales are a literary medium?

I personally have a theory – which is bound to be wrong, but I couldn’t help thinking this throughout the film (which is a bad sign in its own right, by the way). Within the first ten minutes, you’ve seen every possible camera movement this movie can make. Because of the art style, there’s very little possibility to get a lot of expression or dynamic movement conveyed. To give you an example: there’s no possibility for any type of over-the-shoulder action. Dialogues immediately become static. And what did this movie have more than it should? That’s right.

Essentially, the slick style that dragged me into the movie in the first place seems to be its biggest weakness. I felt it shot itself in the foot, and that was such a shame. I wanted to like this movie.

In All…

I wouldn’t go as far as some of the people around me, who boo’ed when Ocelot came on stage. Les contes de la nuit is not bad. It has its merits – cultural heritage, for one – but the flaws are so apparent the movie just feels kind of dull and uninspired. I just can’t tell where the love for the project went.

It’s such a shame, too. This could have been brilliant. If you’re picking it up sometime in the future, you might want to read about the fairy tales beforehand and then watch the movie without sound. And that’s coming from a writer.

(But be sure to put it back on when the Aztec choir starts singing, though. That part was breathtaking. Especially in 3D.)

I hate sounding like the cynic reviewer. But somehow, sometimes, you just have to call em like you see em. If you disagree, please let me know.