Off the canvas
by David Lamble
A new, imaginative, French animated feature (opening Friday at Landmark Theatres) should challenge and delight a wide swath of film buffs. Jean-Francois Laguionie's The Painting has something for everyone: it's conceived and executed in a traditional style of animation that should fascinate fans of representational art while still appealing to aficionados raised on Picasso or Pollock. Its core story-conceit is that the figures within the paintings of an especially irascible artist, possessing a notably dark sense of humor, come alive, jumping off their canvases to finish themselves following the benign neglect of their creator. Movie-wise, The Painting draws on methods as diverse as those pioneered by Walt Disney in his 1920s "Laugh-O-Gram" live action/animated shorts, about the adventures of a little girl named Alice, or by Woody Allen, ahead of his time, in The Purple Rose of Cairo, his saga of a movie-addicted, Depression-era dame who sees her favorite movie star leap down from the screen.
The Painting may well conjure up unsettling images for those who share my back-story of having once been head-over-heels about a couple of decidedly free-spirited young painters. Back in the late 1970s, when Dallas' magnificent fine-arts district was still home to a warehouse-style gay disco, Robert used to dispose of some of his works by gifting them to me. Decades after this affair, I still live with the canvases; it's especially amusing to imagine that any of the figures depicted, from a prehistoric dinosaur to the venerable blues singer Bessie Smith, might flee my walls in search of their now middle-aged creator. My second painter boyfriend, Scooter, described frenzied moments when Robert would slash failed canvasses with a butcher knife when the two shared a Mission flat.
The center of Laguionie's richly imagined world is a fortress-like castle where the "aristocrats," figures from finished paintings dubbed "Alldunns," lord it over their half-caste unfinished cousins, "the Halfies," while both heap scorn on the pencil-conceived "Sketchies." The warring factions have no idea where their bemused creator, the long-absent painter, is, or whether he'll ever return to finish the works in which they reside.
In a funny prologue to the main adventure, a sexy, big-nosed Alldunn youth, Ramo, hopelessly smitten with a Halfie lass, pleads with imperious Alldunn "posers" who plan to enslave the lesser characters at the urging of a clown-like leader, sort of a bullying cousin to Zippy the Pinhead. The scene begins with Ramo pleading for mercy for the "half-breeds," the adolescent invoking the principles of the French Revolution, while getting a scornful reception from Zippy and his followers.
"Your words are fueled by shame and hate. We should blot from our minds our differences, and focus in on how we are the same!"
"Our Ramo is trying to justify his love affair with a Halfie. The days of blissful idealism are over, my friends: If we let in Halfies, why not Sketchies? Where will it end?"
"All he's interested in is power."
"There is no shame in being superior. My pretty little things, you are the light that illuminates this castle!"
The Painting then turns into one of those archetypal journeys through the underworld described by the late mythologist Joseph Campbell – the type of Christian-influenced sojourn fueling blockbuster franchises like the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings series. Here the very artifice behind our plucky little band's creation keeps the proceedings from dissolving into a Tolkien Armageddon or a Potter special-effects miasma. The most disturbing moments occur when the characters stumble across a secret chamber where the slashed remnants of discarded canvasses provide a terrifying reminder of the collateral damage when a painter's work fails to achieve some inner goal.
Does The Painting deserve its 80-minute running time? It depends on what you bring to the show. Moviegoers with a keen, visually charged imagination who enjoy minimally conceived characters thrust against a rich palette of colors and shapes will find themselves in a latter-day visual Fantasia. The movie recapitulates the history of modern art and raises vexing questions about an artist's vision, his work habits, and the existential dilemma of if and when a work of the imagination, executed in oils on canvas, can ever be finished. The attention-deficit crowd may feel the occasional longueur and pine for one of Disney's famous half-features, like Song of the South, so effortlessly filling the hours of Uncle Walt's Wonderful World of Disney on TV. Fortunately, Landmark is showing an English-language version, thus sparing the subtitle-hating from losing half the dialogue to infuriating technical glitches.
As The Painting reached its whimsical happy ending, I recalled my skinny young painters, wondering if the guys who left me a record of nearly every rite of passage through their 20s – from a collage of the last cigarettes puffed to nifty miniature abstracts in wax – would have turned my walls into a miniature Warhol factory, if we had endured as long as their canvases.