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Animation can be any number of things. It all depends on the viewer. Movement, directing, story, color, form - any single element or combination of these elements can create sparks in a viewer's mind. There's no one right answer. This particular viewer happens to see greatness when someone displays a mastery of their own interpretation of what animation should be, regardless of how much it might diverge from the answer of another artist. How do you know it's the right answer? You know it when you see it.
I recently had the pleasure of discovering an animator who displays the calm confidence and mastery of her approach that I associate with a great artist. Her name: Florence Miailhe. I'd never heard of her until seeing her films, which were released on DVD in Japan in the New Animation Animation series, but they immediately rank among my favorite bodies of work by any artist in recent years. Florence Miailhe has created a series of films that at any given moment are immediately identifiable as hers, and only hers, and that immediately capture you with not just their consistent and unflaggingly lush beauty, but by her fundamentally personal approach. She strikes me as someone who approaches the form from a mindset that is somewhat at odds with that of most animators. She doesn't strike me as an animator, so much as a painter who animates. It seems like a subtle nuance, but it's quite important. It's a difference that goes to the core of what makes viewing her work such a pleasure, and what makes her work so great.
Miailhe's first major work, and the work that to me seems to represent her painterly approach in its purest form to some extent, is Hammam (1991). This film was my first exposure to Miailhe, so I came to it knowing little what to expect, and as a result, viewing it was a genuinely surprising and enthralling experience. With no perceptible narrative, the film appears to be what one might describe as a painter's stroll through a women's bathhouse, showing nude women alternately bathing, being massaged, reclining, talking, walking, and so on. But the women are drawn not realistically but in a style that vaguely recalls the great painters of the early 20th century, with a few quick, bold strokes describing the figures arrayed before the painter concisely and elegantly in simple, exaggerated forms.
Watching the film becomes a multileveled experience - Miailhe capturing a moment in the life of the bathhouse with her animator's easel, before standing up and walking to another room to paint another scene. Us following along, wondering where we are and what we're doing here. She's as surprised as we are, but taken also by the incredible beauty of the sight, which she is determined to capture. We share those feelings, following her along with a voyeuristic blush. The gaze is playful by moments, as when she observes with humor the massive hips of the elder women being massaged flat into the form of a young woman. When she gets home, she feels something is missing - life. Movement. Thus the film is born, as she invests the painting with little touches of life and interesting transformations.
The style of animation in Miailhe's films is itself quite interesting. It shares something with the style of Tsuji Naoyuki in the sense that each shot comprises a single sheet upon which she paints with pastels, one frame at a time, in a continuous line until only the last frame of the shot is left on the sheet. Each shot is a painting unfolding in time, a time-lapse photography of the painter in the progress of painting. The previous set of strokes is modified by the current, so that you can see the previous strokes on the screen, and movement creates a trail of itself.
In that sense the film also reminds me of the last and one of the greatest of Oskar Fischinger's films, Motion Painting No. 1 (1947). The subject matter is different, with Fischinger's being pure abstraction, but Miailhe's films are just that - motion painting. In later films Miailhe comes up with a technique of creating beautiful patterns in the wake of the movement of characters to both mask and enhance the characteristic feature of this style of animation. As with any great painting, appreciating the strokes of the painter is important, and here you can see those strokes in the process of their being made. I'm a fan of rougher styled animation for its greater spontaneity, and the rough bold strokes she uses here have a very tactile, visceral, spontaneous beauty.
Hammam is, first and foremost, a magnificently beautiful film to watch. Miailhe is a painter, and this is a film in which each image can be appreciated like a good painting. The forms, the colors, the strokes of the brush and the framing of the image are always unfailingly fresh, impeccably handled, delightful to behold. The animation acts first and foremost to enhance the beauty of the images, rather than to attempt to create the illusion that they are alive in the way that Alexander Petrov's work does. In her two next films, on the other hand, the animation by necessity becomes a bit more more naturalistic and active.
The simplicity of the film is one of its assets. Hammam has the formal purity and strength of a musical exploration of variations on a theme. An old artistic staple that has gone by the wayside of living art - the nude - is revived in a very appealing way by bringing it into the dimension of time and movement. While Miailhe's later films are all fully the equal of Hammam on a painterly level, they have a narrative framework that is lacking here and gives Hammam the appeal of being perhaps the most rigorous and simple expression of her approach.
If it wasn't obvious enough from her first film, there's a very strong erotic element in all of Miailhe's work. In retrospect, Hammam even comes across as a sort of unashamed declaration of her preoccupations as an artist - namely, with femininity, the human body, and desire. Miailhe doesn't strike me as a beginning animator in her first film. She strikes me as an artist with a clear grasp of her goals, whose vision remains firm and consistent over the next few years of her production.
The two films that followed Hammam are adaptations of stories from the 1001 Nights - both being her longest films to date, clocking in at 16 minutes each, and both featuring an overriding element of sexuality. The first is Scheherazade (1995), which tells the framing story of the woman who through her cunning and ingenuity curbed the murderous fury of a cuckolded prince by telling him a new story every night for 1001 nights. A year later followed one of the stories told, legend has it, by Scheherazade to the prince - the story of The Prince who Lost an Eye and Became a Beggar (1996).
The films first of all bring a new element to Miailhe's work - that of narrative. The setting in ancient Arabia seems the perfect element in which for Miailhe to revel in the sort of baroque, lushly colored scenery that makes her painting such a delight to behold. At the most basic level, both 1001 Nights films are beautiful and entertaining works that make you wish there were more in the series. While obviously functioning on the surface as lush, beautiful tales of the exotic and fantastic for Miailhe to regale us with her gorgeous images, they also serve to provide modern insight into the relationship between sexuality, behavior and violence. This aspect makes these films much stronger than conventional retellings of these already famous stories.
The way the films examine the relationship between sexual drive and violence reminds me of a similar preoccupation in the films of Walerian Borowczyk. His early masterpiece Blanche (1971) is an excellent historical drama whose outcome hinges on this dynamic. An aged feudal lord is driven mad for vengeance when a paige of the king makes overtures at his wife, leading to a downward spiral of escalating violence that leads to the death of most involved. The film acts as an examination of the ways in which desires underlies and drives every aspect of human behavior, in extremis turning love into its opposite and driving people to irrationally commit heinous acts of violence.
In Scheherazade, a prince discovers that he has been deceived by his wife, who holds wild orgies every night with her entourage. After murdering everyone involved, he seeks revenge upon womanhood as a whole by taking a new virgin to his bed every night, and killing her that very night to ensure that he will never again be cheated upon by a woman. A young woman named Scheherazade seeks to curb his reign of terror in an odd way - by marrying him. To save her own life, she tells him a new story every night, withholding the conclusion until the next evening. She does this for 1001 nights, until he finally falls in love with her and vows to stop his murderous spree.
The fantastical The Prince who Lost an Eye and Became a Beggar is a version of a story from the anthology proper, and provides a great example of the timeless fascination of the stories from the 1001 Nights. A prince leaves his country on a boat in search of adventure, only to find himself plunged into a series of unlikely adventures involving everything from a magical bronze horse that transports our hero to a faraway land, to a gigantic monster holding a beautiful princess captive. The forces of lust and death are forever intertwined, leading the prince to his inevitable downfall.
Miailhe's next film dates from several years later - White Bird, Black Bird (2002). It is very different from her previous films in many ways, and seems to mark a different stage in her artistic life. It's a short film, clocking in at only four minutes, and also concise and simple. A narrator recites what appears to be a traditional proverb from some African nation about black birds and white birds. Every person has a series of nests in their soul - a black nest and a white nest. The black nest roosts black birds, evil thoughts sent by an enemy, while the white nest roosts white birds, good thoughts sent by a friend. The solution when an enemy sends you a black bird? Don't let it in, and send a white bird back in return.
It's a simple metaphor with a strong message about human aggression that seems particularly apt in light of the year it was released. The film appears to be animated using a different technique from her previous films, which were animated using pastels. It appears to be sand animation. I don't know what Miailhe was up to in the intervening years, but she undoubtedly continued to be active in other areas as an artist, presumably painting. I get the impression that she felt the world needed to hear this proverb at that moment in time. The theme of the passions leading humans to engage in irrational violence against one another is one that runs throughout her work, and is here expressed in a new and more direct way.
Miailhe's next film shows her continuing to explore new facets of her art. With the quite recent Neighborhood Stories (2006) she is back to the longer length of the 1001 Nights films, but now she is telling a story firmly set in the contemporary western world, not in some faraway fantasy land. Despite this, the film retains something of the atmosphere of her previous films by telling a strange and fantastic story that doesn't seem of this world, despite having all of the appearances of taking place in the everyday world we know.
A lone acrobat in purple checkered tights practices on a trapeze. A lion escapes its cage and prowls the streets with a doll in its maw. A little boy searches for his lost doll. All of these strange things are happening right there, outside your window, in the old neighborhood you know so well. The world is a place where we are all seeking something, prowling on the streets like animals in a jungle. The world is full of menace and danger. But life goes on. Pedestrians saunter by, pianos are unloaded from moving trucks, and homeless bums sleep in metal cannisters outside of the apartment construction site on the corner of the street. The story swirls around and gradually all of the players become intertwined in this world where we all live together.
The film comes off brilliantly considering how much of a divergence it represents in style from Miailhe's earlier films. The images are still lush and painterly, but without that Matisse-like richness. The world here is all shades of gray and straight lines and angles, with only the billboards shouting colorful pornographic advertising at us from every wall. The film is also different in that it was the product of a larger team, from what I can gather from the credits. Several people other than Miailhe are credited with animation. The film was clearly created in a digital environment, with some incongruous movements every once in a while, and loses some of the stylistic uniformity and elegance that her earlier films had because they were all painted in the same analog way. Nonetheless it is one of the most thematically challenging and compelling of her films, and is certainly one of the best short animated films of the last few years. I hope that we can continue to see more of Florence Miailhe's animation in the future.
Dear Friend–I have spent a lot of time trying to find the Florence Miailhe films that were “released on DVD in Japan in the New Animation Animation series". I have looked all over the place and can’t find ths DVD. Could you please send me a link or a reference or whatever to the DVD or where I may buy the DVD itself? Thank you very much. Tom Shelley, Ithaca NY