One of my favorite recent DVD purchases is Belgian animation filmmaker Raoul Servais’ L’Intégrale des courts métrages anthology from France. In addition to the ten short films in the collection (some of which can be viewed at Atom Films), there are also extracts from all of his remaining films (including his one feature film, Taxandria), a near feature length documentary, an interview with Servais, as well as a commentary track on Night Butterflies where he discusses his aesthetic homage to Belgian artist Paul Delvaux through his portraiture of enigmatic women wearing allusive (or elusive) masks. Stylistically evolving from avant-garde art movement inspired animation, to monochromatic, rough hewn pen and ink styled animations reminiscent of op-ed political cartoons, to his more recent films that transect the bounds of live-action and animation, Servais’ films are magical, pensive, and provocative alchemies of passion, conscience, and inspired – and inspiring – creativity.
The False Note, 1963
Wryly subtitled as an “old twentieth century legend” fable set “in the days when some people still knew what it was to go hungry”, The False Note is the dialogue-less tale of a down on his luck organ grinder whose out of tune portable barrel organ produces a cacophonous, errant false note at the end of an evocative, downbeat serenade that invariably sets the once attentive audience into a hostile and uncharitable mood. Wandering through the streets of a cosmopolitan city rife with images of consumerism, the doleful hero encounters first hand the melancholy of obsolescence, as the rudimentary music emanating from his hand-cranked barrel organ is rebuffed in favor of the novel technologies of an amplified jukebox and the mesmerizing, peripatetic lights of a pinball machine, until he finds a momentary kindred spirit in a carousel horse enshrouded with cobwebs at an abandoned carnival. Raoul Servais’ impressive animation is something of a Pablo Picasso drawing study crossed with the silent expressiveness of Marcel Marceau, replete with a richness of imagery that not only juxtaposes the theme of the false note against iconic images of currency, but also the innate inhumanity of a rootless, disposable society.
Servais achieved international acclaim with his ground-breaking, anti-militarist fable on repression, perseverance, and the indomitability of the human spirit, Chromophobia, a compact, yet articulate parable of an aggressive, chromophobic army that marches into an idyllic kingdom and systematically terrorizes the population by erasing all traces of color within its periphery, until a little girl unexpectedly cultivates a lone, resilient red flower in her garden. Evoking the instinctual compositions of a more geometric Joan Miró, the film is particularly remarkable in Servais’ illustration of resonant, iconic symbolism: a balloon that is converted into a ball and chain mirrors the town’s spiritual captivity, the transformation of trees into gallows represents the corrupted interrelation between life and unnatural death in times of war, flowers emerging from the barrel of a rifle reflects a restoration of peace and gesture of renewed humanity.
In hindsight, Sirène can be seen as Servais’ transitional composition from his early, more conventional animated art films to the rawer, more visceral works that would define his early 1970s oeuvre. A somber, surrealist tale that fuses prehistoric and modern, reality and myth, the film revisits the double entendre of The False Note in its prefigurative sound of an emergency siren that accompanies the title sequence. Opening to a curious encounter between two competing cranes as they attempt to take possession of an unloaded crate with disastrous results, this image of primitive territoriality would subsequently be repeated (with even more horrifying consequences) in a King Solomon-styled arbitration between a medical and a zoological institution after a mermaid is found on the docks of a phantom shipyard. In contrast to the cheerful caricatures of his earlier films, the dour, ghostly images of Sirène recall the gothic figurations of Edward Gorey in its cautionary fable on the myopia of humanity in the “civilized” quest for equitable justice.
Goldframe is the first film to emerge in what would be Servais’ more elemental period, a film that derives implicit irony in its deconstructed, monochromatic, pen and ink illustration of a bombastic, larger than life Hollywood studio executive who demands, at all cost, to be the first to have the technology for a 270mm film. Turning up in a projection room that is outfitted with an undersized (and self-aggrandizing) director’s chair to watch, not the rushes of the latest film, but his own shadow cast by his hand-selected spotlight, the film culminates with Goldframe’s empty, narcissistic mano a mano posturing challenge against his own shadow, and in the process, creates an acerbic commentary on egoism and the obsessive pursuit of one upsmanship.
To Speak or Not to Speak, 1970
The Vietnam War undoubtedly fuels Servais’ anti-militarist, anti-authoritarian sentiment in To Speak or Not to Speak, as a roving reporter asking the loaded question, “What’s your opinion about the actual political situation?” serves as a springboard for a critical examination on social conformity, consumerism, and bohemianism… the questions answered with inarticulate disfluencies that quickly overrun the speaker’s thought bubble, become entangled with such empty confusion that a spider web forms within it, or resort to tried and true mantras. Perhaps the most incisive – and prescient – episode in the film is the re-appearance of the reporter as an embedded war correspondent who plays it safe with fluff opinion pieces that skirt around the consequences of war before being confronted by its grim reality. Rather than obliquely addressing the social inertia and petty self-interest that enabled the protraction of war, Servais directly engages issues of censorship, political doublespeak, and the corruption of information in the dissemination of news as propaganda.
Operation X-70, 1971
The specter of the Vietnam War – and particularly, the U.S. government’s controversial use of chemical weapons – also casts a somber pall over Servais’ next film, Operation X-70. The film opens with a slideshow projection of a clandestine scientific experiment (that stylistically evokes Chris Marker’s La Jetée) presenting the laboratory results of a new, non-lethal chemical weapon that places the Asiatic subjects in a lethargic, euphoric state in order to “help them to rediscover their deep, religious nature”. Immediately winning the endorsement of the country’s gas-mask hooded religious leader (dressed in a not-too-subtle Klansman-like ensemble) who extols the virtues of X-70 as a clean weapon that doesn’t kill and is, therefore, “in accordance with our Christian civilization”, the chemical weapon is soon dispatched for bombardment of its Pacific targets, until an aircraft’s malfunctioning navigational system sends its payload on an unexpected international course. Winner of the Jury Prize for Short Film at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, Operation X-70 is a sobering, trenchant, and immediately relevant examination of cultural arrogance, religious fanaticism, and racism. Exposing the intrinsic inhumanity and hypocrisy of deploying “humane weapons” (such as targeted, non-civilian, collateral damage air strikes) in the waging of war, Servais boldly – and defiantly – engages the social conscience in confronting moral issues of escalating aggression, humane treatment, privilege, and righteousness.
Returning to the more traditionally rooted animated art films of early works such as A False Note and Chromophobia, Servais channels the rough stroke expressionism of Vincent van Gogh to create one of his most artfully rendered films, Pegasus, the tale of an aging blacksmith who whiles away his empty days trying to swat an errant fly with a forging hammer, until the appearance of industrial farm machinery in the village leads him to create a false god in the shape of an iron horse in a desperate attempt to stop the encroachment of technology. A cautionary fable on idolatry and psychological self-imprisonment, the film also represents a counterpoint to the inhumanity of technology gone amok in Operation X-70, where resistance to change, willful ignorance, and failure to adapt to new ideas become a figurative regression into the Dark Ages of self-created imprisonment, blind worship, and obsolete rituals.
Although Servais has explored emotional and psychological horror within a framework of exploring social conditions and the effects of war in his previous work, his first foray into the genre is with the phantasmagoric, surreal fusion of live action and animation film, Harpya, a film that was awarded the Palm d’or for Short Film at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival. Subverting the damsel in distress tale, the film follows the fate of a well-intentioned passerby who comes to the aid of a woman apparently being strangled by a man in the cover of darkness – and who, in turn, turns out to be, not a woman, but a half woman, half bird of prey mythological harpy. Devouring everything inside his home, the harpy soon imprisons him to a life of resigned servility (in a gruesome act that foretells the mutilated captivity of Boxing Helena) until the lulling sound of a phonograph offers him a chance at escape. A radical departure from the humanist mythological fable of Sirène, the film’s psychologically dark and grotesque imagery instead shares greater thematic affinity with the autonomous shadows of Goldframe and induced chemical mutations of Operation X-70 to create a disturbing cautionary tale on the perils of intervention and the implicit violation of natural order.
Nocturnal Butterflies, 1998
Nocturnal Butterflies is Servais’ serene and melancholic homage to Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), whose architectural paintings serve as the basis for the mise-en-scène for the film, and whose opaquely gazed women represent the enigmatic, silent witnesses who guard the secrets of the eccentric artist’s curious world of precisely rendered, hermetic construction. Opening to the image of a lone butterfly accidentally – or perhaps deliberately – setting into mechanized motion the arcade rhythm of a magical ballroom waltz, Nocturnal Butterflies inhabits the fleeting, fragile, and mysterious waking dream world of these transfixed women as they perform their graceful, rhapsodic rituals until a butterfly collector deboarding the train (a reference to Trains Du Soir) catches sight of the ballroom’s unassuming architect and stumbles into their clandestine soirée. Continuing in his studies of integrating live action and animation, Servais further experiments with traditional mixed media (oils, pastels, inks, and watercolors) to create a remarkably tactile, sublimely haunting, and elegant choreography of texture, precision, plasticity, and movement.
On a parched and desolate landscape, a group of shackled prisoners walk in eternal limbo around a borderless prison yard until one day when an inmate spots a ray of light emanating from beyond the view of a steep and treacherous mountain and decides to climb towards its source in the naïve hope that liberation awaits at the end of the trail. Returning to the distilled, monochromatic palette of Goldframe and Operation X-70, Atraksion represents Servais’ introduction to digital post-processing. Adapting the allegorical flight of Icarus into a modern day metaphor for self-imprisonment (a theme that also pervades the vaguely mythological Pegasus), Servais implicitly (and incisively) embraces the virtues of new technology through the prisoners’ realization of a transformative paradigm shift, to create a metaphoric, yet personal tale of re-invention, creativity, experimentation, and artistic fearlessness.
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