Review: The Girl Without Hands

The Brothers Grimm story from which this French animated film has been adapted is not one of their more famous ones, but it has all the non-Disney hallmarks that have made the fairy tale-meisters the darlings of comparative lit majors. It’s fixated on graphic violence and sublimated sex, but it’s also about the human capacity for cruelty that goes beyond the kind of cartoon villainy we’ve come to expect from stories like this. The fundamental reason the story is so powerful and suggestive is the animation itself, which not only eschews CGI, but also the kind of cell-craft that most people are familiar with.

Sebastien Laudenbach is mainly a brush and ink painter, and he draws his figures in impressionistic but wholly dramatic style over washes of pure watercolor. The images flicker naturally, as if alive in a flame, and with his knack for distinctive facial expression, Laudenbach can alternately charm and terrify on a dime. This style ably brings to life the story of an unfortunate girl, which is as lean as the drawings.

She is, naturally, from a poor household, and her desperate miller father sells his apple tree to the devil for gold. However, when the father made his misbegotten deal, his daughter was in the tree, and the devil is thus unable to claim his sale because the girl’s purity makes it impossible for him to touch it, so he forces the father to cut off her hands as further payment. The girl flees both her father and the devil and eventually meets a prince who gifts her two golden hands. That would seem to be her salvation, but the prince must go off to war, and, pregnant, she is left in the care of the prince’s gardener, who is slow but kind.

From this point the story becomes increasingly fantastic and difficult to follow in terms of plot clarity. The devil returns in various disguises, perhaps as a means of stealing the girl’s child, and eventually a river takes the form of a woman who defends the girl. Though the viewer can get a sense of the moral that the Grimms were aiming for, these flights of narrative fancy may simply be Laudenbach’s take on the story, as a means of depicting in visual form the callousness of human nature, which becomes almost palpable on the screen. Though abstract in theory, the effect of the animation, and of Olivier Mellano’s beautifully spare score, is literal and affecting. People will do what they will if they think they can get away with it.

In French. Now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).

The Girl Without Hands home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Les Films Sauvages – 2016

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