Thursday, 5 May 2011

Cinema 16: #3. The Old Lady And The Pigeons (Sylvain Chomet, 1998)

The Old Lady And The Pigeons (Sylvain Chomet, 1998)
I've been a big fan of Sylvain Chomet ever since my first viewing of his obscure silent classic The Triplets Of Belleville (2003), which told the peculiar story of a kidnapped cyclist and his adventurous grandma. His latest film, The Illusionist (2010), based on an unrealized script by Jacques Tati, was among my favorites of last year, and therefore I had high expectations for this BAFTA-winning short. Delightedly, they were met. The story here follows an aging and starved gendarme who constructs a cunning disguise in order to cheat food from a little old lady, whom he stumbles across in a lonely park. But he doesn't suspect that she may have terrifying culinary schemes of her own...

The film opens with a collage of holiday snapshots, taken by obese and crass Americans (sketched in Chomet's typically obtuse and ill proportioned style) who serve to introduce our lead character. The film is frequently inventive in its narrative progression, not just in shot structure but also in the way it occasionally sidetracks in order to get us from one place to another. Consider the journey to the park. A shot focused on a side-street pans up to reveal a blimp cycling across the glowing orange sky. We cut to the shadow of the blimp floating across the quaint little park, which we then enter by a shot which tracks a plump bird falling from an erect statue to the dusty ground. It's a lovely little moment, and one of many. There's one terrifically nightmarish sequence where the gendarme imagines himself feasting on a roast pig when suddenly a flock of menacing birdmen surround him (pictured above). It's a surrealist set-piece that Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain, 1973) would proudly put his name to.

What's really amazing about The Old Lady And The Pigeons is the amount of stories, ideas and genres it manages to cram into its 22-minute running time. It is alternately phantasmagorical, blacky comic, movingly dramatic and towards the end even manages to crowbar in something of a dance number. It's not just the story of a gendarme who lives in a dingy spider infested flat, but also the story of a potentially cannibalistic old lady who has a fetish for people in animal costumes (cats and birds especially). Chomet manages to form entire universes with his cinema, but only shows us a portion of them.

Chomet spent ten years hand drawing the film himself, and as such it feels like the personal work of a visionary and imaginative artist. His eye for detail is already incredibly measured and exciting; the slow passing of time as indicated by a calendar shedding its pages is cut next to footage of the gendarme getting fatter and fatter, cumbersomely waddling up the steps to the old ladies apartment, always passing on the same floor a bucktoothed cleaner who likely holds a story of her own. Her design is just as freakishly deformed as everyone else's in the film; Chomet's sense of shape is broad, yet never feels out of place. For me it recalls Quentin Blake.

What I love about The Old Lady And The Pigeons is that you can never predict its next move, or know which genre you'll be slipping into next. It is at once mournful and macabre, richly detailed and evocative, spacious and intimate. The colour is sensational, and the characterization totally unique. It's a deftly balanced tale which does more in 22 minutes than most features can accomplish with 100, and I can't recommend it enough...

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