Berlinale Day 5: Ancient meets Modern in ‘Tales of the Night’

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Feb 14th, 2011

In Cave of Forgotten Dreams Herzog couldn’t resist commenting on the cinematic dimensions he perceived in the 32,000 year old Chauvet cave paintings. He noted that some of the animals portrayed had 8 legs, suggesting that even at this early stage in human development, we wanted to represent movement: the cinematic impulse was there.

Michel Ocelot’s new animation, Les Contes de la nuit (Tales of the Night) contains similar self-reflexivity: its content points to cinema history, as it is set in an old movie theatre. There, at night, three imaginative colleagues gather to develop and act out fairytale narratives. The film reflects the animator’s own process of creation, as it shows the characters doing research to find facts and inspiration, coming up with their own ideas, and bringing these ideas to life with their drawings. Within the film’s story space, the two younger characters don costumes and physically act out the roles, so in this sense their enactments are more like theatre than cinema. These characters appear as silhouettes, though, so their performances actually evoke cinema’s most ancient origins: before we had technology to record images on film and project them at a speed of several frames per second, the closest thing we had to cinema’s moving images were the painted glass slides of magic lanterns and, before that, the moving outlines of shadow puppets. These paper or metal cut-outs were only a short step away from the shadows cast on the walls by Herzog’s cavemen as they worked by firelight.

There is another interesting parallel between Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Tales of the Night. In their content, the films evoke cinema’s history, but in their form, both make use of some of the latest technology that may constitute cinema’s future: 3D and, in the case of Ocelot, computer animation. Again like Herzog, Ocelot does not make ostentatious or intrusive use of 3D: rather, he uses it to enhance the already powerful effect of that ancient form of representation, the silhouette. I should point out here that other filmmakers have made use of silhouette animation within the past century: most notably, German animator Lotte Reiniger’s magical work in the 1920s. What gives Ocelot’s silhouette animation extra appeal, however, is not only the greater impression of layering provided by 3D technology, but also his backdrops which have a vibrancy of colour and a precision of form which digital technology permits. If directors use technology for its own sake, without adding enough of a human touch, the effect can be cold and alienating. Ocelot succeeds in injecting humanity into his technologically accomplished animation, however: silhouettes are a form that has been familiar to humans for thousands of years, and through skilful animation these computer-generated silhouettes are endowed with the grace of real humans in their locomotion and their subtlest gestures. The other resolutely human dimension is the fairy tales themselves, which have gained power as legends, passed down for generations, intended as entertainment but also moral guidance.

Of course, for all pleasure that fairytales provide, they can also be criticised for perpetuating outdated stereotypes about gender and nationality. Ocelot does not challenge the premise of beautiful princesses being saved by brave princes, but in the part of the film’s story space where the three friends work together to develop their tales, the female character has the same creative power as her male colleagues, and isn’t afraid to object when she sees a problem with a story. Moreover, I think that if you take a closer look at some of these stories, there are elements which subtly subvert the moral universe of the usual fairytales, and replace their hierarchical and normative assumptions with more modern attitudes. For example, in the Caribbean tale a boy inadvertently enters the Kingdom of the Dead, and successfully completes a series of tasks required to win half the kingdom and the king’s eldest daughter. When presented with this prize, he says that he wants nothing to do with the Kingdom of the Dead, and that he already has a girlfriend at home, and he’s keen to get back to her: with that, he heads off whistling a cheeky tune, leaving the underworld royalty open-mouthed.

Tales of the Night is exemplary in that its enthusiasm for a good story knows no national boundaries. Looking for stories from different continents opens up a new world in more ways than one, as the fairy tales in this film will probably be new to most audience members. As a children’s film, its lessons are not just in the fairytales, but in the attitudes of the three creative characters, who are passionately interested in different cultures: they pore over volumes of world fairy tales from their bookshelves, and use the internet to learn about local hairstyles, foods and animals. Children and adults alike will appreciate the element of insolent humour in the fairytales (as in the example of the Caribbean tale). There are not too many humorous elements in this film aimed above the kids’ heads—just a couple of subtle references, such as the story which ends with a princess declaring that she is happy for her prince to turn into a wolf from time to time. Of course, sexual metaphors have long been a part of fairy tales, which were intended to reflect and manage young people’s fears about growing up. For the adults in the audience, the main attraction of this film will be its animation, which is both simple and intensely beautiful: it is perhaps this very combination of simplicity and beauty which makes this film so moving.

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