Sexy Laundry (2015) by Izabela Plucińska

Between the Valentine’s Day – originally a Western Christian liturgical feast, now an excuse to spend our hard-earned money on red roses and heart-shaped chocolates ($19.7 billion in the US last year) – and the Women’s Day (originally International Working Women’s Day, celebrated since 1909), I decided to write about women, love and relationships. But despite the popularity of the topic, it wasn’t easy to find works I wanted to present, for I am not interested in “…and they lived happily ever after” kind of stories. These sorts of tales, like the recent 3D creation from Disney, Paperman, while charming and faultlessly made, do nothing beyond warming our hearts for a few minutes, as they barely scratch the surface of this complex and fascinating field. The female character I’m interested in seeing on the screen is not a helpless beauty, waiting passively for her beloved to wake her from sleep; she’s bold, and willing to take risks. The love I want to see is complicated and challenging; often unrequited, unfulfilled or unfulfilling; love that is set against obstacles of life and time, and sometimes takes years to evolve and flourish.

The few films I’ve chosen to present are unique for different reasons, and they differ greatly in style, but what they all have in common is that neither of them succumbs to the clichéd depiction of femininity and love.

1. A Feather Tale / Accordion

Stills from  A Feather Tale (1992) and Accordion (2004) by Michèle Cournoyer

The first two films are by Michèle Cournoyer, a Canadian animator who remains faithful to traditional ink on paper drawings. She’s been experimenting with computers, but in the end always goes back to pen and paper: “I draw like that because I do self-portraits. I draw myself. (…) I am trying to change my technique but it is very difficult for me. It’s a drug”, as she is quoted in an article for The Ottawa Citizen. And just as she remains reluctant to incorporate digital technologies in her work, she is equally sceptical of using colour: “I try to put colour into my films, but it’s like I am allergic to colours. I don’t wear colours, but I like it on other people. I’m not ready to use colour in my films.” Both films, A Feather Tale (1992) and Accordion (2004), while made at different points in time, tackle a similar subject: a woman following her desires and getting hurt. A Feather Tale is a disturbing story of the consequences of fulfilling someone else’s sexual fantasies, and getting abused. It asks questions about personal boundaries and trust in a relationship, where the two people should have such a level of connection that a safe word would be redundant (not that there was one to start with, in the case of Cournoyer’s tale). Accordion, made at a time when the fascination with internet communication was steadily growing, explores a somewhat different topic, though the emotions remain the same: the ephemeral nature of cyber relationships, and artificiality of intimacy it creates. This is a situation where two people can open themselves up to the point of becoming vulnerable and subsequently get hurt, when one party suddenly cuts themselves off, abandoning the other person and any responsibility that being together brings.

2. The Garden of Words

Stills from The Garden of Words (2013) by Makoto Shinkai

The sort of loneliness and sadness that Michèle Cournoyer depicts in her films is also palpable in The Garden of Words (2013) by Makoto Shinkai (referred to as “the new Miyazaki”), which tells a story about an encounter between Takao, a 15-year-old boy and aspiring shoemaker, and Yukari Yukino, a mysterious 27-year-old school teacher, at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, where the two play truant on rainy mornings. The rain, just like the shoe-making,  is used as a metaphor here. By making shoes, Takao is learning “to walk”, as is Yukari, who is learning from Takao to reconnect with the world. The rain, which the characters are so fond of, could be seen as a metaphor for love, as neither can be stopped or controlled. There is a great sense of “lonely sadness” throughout the film, which actually happens to be the meaning of the traditional Japanese word for “love” (the concept of romance came with the Western influences, whereas the original word, “koi”, meant “longing for someone in solitude”). The relationship between Takao and Yukari is almost impossible, and not necessarily because of the age gap, because age seems irrelevant. They simply both need to grow and mature (Yukari just as much as the 12-year younger boy) and in order to achieve that, they need to be on their own. The film combines hand-drawn animation, rotoscoping and CGI, with photographs used for many of the landscapes. Unusually for an anime, the colour used for each character is integrated with the background, to “mimic the refraction of light on the skin as seen in nature”. The landscapes are a homage to Shinjuku in Tokyo, where the director has lived for 10 years.

3. Sexy Laundry

Stills from Sexy Laundry (2015) by Izabela Plucińska

Just as I’m interested in “unlikely relationships” between two people who theoretically shouldn’t fall for each other, I am also partial to stories about middle-aged and old couples as I find there is far too much emphasis on youth. Let’s face it, being in love when you’re 25, and your views are not tainted by experience or pain, is easy. Being in love after 25 years of marriage is the real challenge, and I’m much more interested in that. I’m one of those people who get more moved by a photo of a couple of 90 year-olds holding hands than one of a newborn baby. The question of how to sustain lust, curiosity, and excitement in a long-term relationship, when you’ve supposedly seen and experienced it all, is one we all want an answer to. Izabela Plucińska’s erotic comedy, Sexy Laundry (2015), asks these exact questions, as its characters, Alice and Henry, a couple in their 50s, are trying hard to recapture the spark of passion over a romantic hotel rendez-vous. The animation, made entirely in clay (here’s a brilliant “making of”) is both funny and sad, and there’s something deeply human and moving about the clumsy efforts of the greying couple, their inhibitions and self-consciousness. Although this one’s a “happy ending” story, it’s not magic that brings the passion back, but the realisation of how precious the relationship is and the ability to be enchanted by the other person’s little things and quirks.

4. Chico and Rita

Stills from Chico & Rita (2010) by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando

But it doesn’t necessarily need years before conflicts and disappointments can start casting ugly shadows on the purest love. Chico and Rita from Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando’s animated feature film from 2010, begin getting at each other’s throats right from the beginning of their relationship. It could be one of those “one true love” stories, but as Rogert Ebert pointed out in his review, “they’re doomed to exist in a permanent state of break-up”, where Chico, who struggles with monogamy, perpetually chases Rita away and she, being a hot-blooded woman unwilling to accept his unfaithfulness, is just as radical in her actions and decisions. This is a sad tale, for it’s heart-breaking to see their inability to overcome these flaws (especially Chico), and appreciate the love they have and could build on. It is also a story of two strong artistic personalities (Chico is a pianist, Rita a singer), with self-destructive tendencies and uncontrollable temper that feed into their work. Many years will need to pass before they will be able to recognise the mistakes of their youth and reach out to each other. The animation was developed in Estudio Mariscal in Barcelona, and it engaged more than 200 people split across 11 studios in 6 different countries across the world. In a 3-part YouTube documentary, Kepa Dañobeitia Alemany, production manager, describes the process of collaborating internationally with the use of HoBSoft and ToonBoom. The film combines simple style of drawings from Estudio Mariscal with traditional animation. It was shot on video in Cuba with real actors, so that animators had key frames of positions to work from. According to Digital Media World “the live action shots were used to create backgrounds in either 2D, 2½D or 3D” while “all 2D animation and colouring were realised in Toon Boom Harmony”. With over 1000 scenes and the challenge of combining the work of the cleanup artist with the way ToonBoom Harmony scans and vectorises that line, it was a very demanding production, but thanks to HoBSoft, its makers were able to easily exchange materials, and control status of every single scene at any point of the process. The result is very impressive. Chico and Rita have a lot of character and the attention to details when it comes to gestures, looks and facial expression is tremendous.

5. Invention of love

Stills from Invention of Love (2010) by Andrey Shushkov

Another impressive, both visual- and story-wise piece of film-making is Invention of Love (2010) by Andrey Shushkov, a short silhouette animation made in the style of Lotte Reiniger’s, Michel Ocelot’s works and Antony Lucas’s Jasper Morello film. Its pretty straight-forward plot describes a relationship between a man from a futuristic tech-oriented world virtually divorced from nature, and a nature-loving woman who follows him as they decide to make their life together. Judging by the reviews and comments I’ve read, most people seem to interpret the story as a modern man’s departure from nature and unhealthy obsession with technology, but for me the focal point is what happens between two people who come from two different worlds with different values. As often happens in real life, it is the woman who has to abandon her world to be with the man she loves. Unfortunately, he fails to appreciate the compromise she’s gone on, and continues living in the way he’s always been, oblivious to her needs and desires. Neglected and alone, she dies, and we see a sad and futile attempt from the lonely, desperate lover recreate his beloved in the form of a machine. A simple, yet thought-provocative tale. Bravo.

Bonus

Staying in the love / relationship theme, as a bonus video I’d like to share a great animation created by my colleague at Badi Badi, Waldek Mordarski, created by animating salt on a black plate. It’s beautiful, poetic, and I think definitely deserves to be shared!

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