Given the overwhelming number of movies released each year, it’s only natural that, in critical circles, there’s a tendency to overpraise certain works simply because they deviate from the norm. The same few formulas now dominate the mainstream American landscape, as epitomized by Marvel’s use of a tried-and-true house style to reap abundant superhero rewards. That’s even truer of domestic animation, as Hollywood delivers an endless array of computerized lookalikes (this summer, see: Despicable Me 3—or, well, don’t), the better to guarantee that kids keep getting exactly what they’ve already proven they’ll consume. In such an unadventurous environment, a critic can’t help but greet any shred of eccentricity as a breath of fresh air, if not an outright invigorating rebuke to the dull narratives and familiar CGI visuals that now lull audiences into a reasonably satiated stupor.
And yet despite that state of affairs, I’m here to tell you that The Girl Without Hands deserves to be hailed as just that: a formally daring convention-defier that, in ways both bold and subtle, puts most of its genre brethren to shame.
Feted with the Jury Prize and Best French Film trophy at the 2016 Annecy Animation Festival, and then subsequently screened at the Cannes Film Festival, Sébastien Laudenbach’s French-language feature debut is a work of uniquely stunning beauty, and one that marries its striking looks to material that’s at once classical and, underneath its exterior, slyly modern.
Based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and featuring relatively minimal dialogue, it’s a simple saga about greed, selfishness, sacrifice, and goodness, culminating in a finale that carries with it a decidedly subtle—yet unmistakable—feminist touch. Such flourishes, however, are mere embellishments for what turns out to be, first and foremost, a transportive sensory experience.
The Girl Without Hands concerns, as you might have already guessed, a girl without hands—although the means by which she comes to lose her appendages is, like the director’s storytelling approach, anything but natural. Set against blank-canvas backgrounds, Laudenbach’s animation (a mix of the hand-drawn and 2D CGI) is a thing of expressive impressionism, marked by fluid lines that fluctuate, transform and swing and sway about the frame as if carried by the wind, thus giving the film the air of a more abstract Henri Matisse painting come to liquid, adaptable life. That lively design is apparent from its opening moments, which begin like charcoal sketches and then slowly develop into coherent sights: water running down a hill to power a watermill; a child being born and a mother planting flowers as that tyke grows up; a girl’s hands scrubbing water beneath a pond’s surface; a bird soaring through the expansive air; and wet footprints drying on the ground as the river runs dry, depositing only a drop to the now-motionless mill wheel.
From those few introductory sights, Laudenbach establishes his action’s prevailing visual motifs, while also setting the scene for the forthcoming action. In dire straights due to lack of water and food, the miller (voiced by Olivier Broche) is an easy target for manipulation, and is thus approached by a pig-accompanied stranger (Philippe Laudenbach, the father of the director), who offers to grant the man wealth if he hands over that which lies behind his mill. Assuming the dealmaker is referring to his apple tree, the miller agrees, and is bestowed with a river of gold that makes him instantly rich beyond his wildest dreams. His wife (Françoise Lebrun), however, quickly realizes, “this gold is so shiny, yet it seems so dirty”—a sentiment shared by his daughter (Anaïs Demoustier), who sews a hammock (emphasis, as always, on her hands) to hang in the tree, where she opts to live for the next few years, rather than the gilded room that her father offers.
It’s a biblically-tinged setup, replete with a materialistic husband/father, a seductive Devil, and an innocent girl attached to an apple tree. And it turns exceedingly dark once the stranger returns to collect on his bargain, since what he truly covets is the miller’s daughter, who was lounging in the apple tree when the transaction was executed. Fortunately for the family, the girl’s habit of washing herself has made her too clean to acquire, so the Devil demands the father rectify the situation, lest he lose his gold. A flurry of visual figures and sounds explode, with only the outline of hands discernable amidst the commotion, followed by oblique depictions of abuse and murder, the latter courtesy of a pack of demonic dogs ripping the defenseless mother to shreds. Still, the girl has cried on her hands, making them untenable to the Devil (who’s now taken the shape of a whistling boy). So he demands the man chop them off—which he does, the girl’s body dark and fuzzy, her blue-tinged hands in brilliant focus. The screen goes red, engulfed by sharp lines.
That’s only the beginning of The Girl Without Hands’ tale, which sees the daughter being set free by the Devil (since her stumps are also tainted by her tears), who promises to reclaim his “gains with interest” later on. A journey through the wilderness, a romance, a birth, and more treachery ensues, all of it scored to plaintive guitar picking and conveyed via an endless array of enchanting, hallucinatory animated sequences that undulate and whoosh about with expressionistic grace. From POV shots travelling up winding staircases and through giant doors, to panoramas of the daughter walking through mountains and across valley streams, the landscapes spied through her translucent torso, Laudenbach’s film is a marvel of coherently free-flowing imagery. Moreover, it’s one that comingles the childlike and the adult in arresting ways, such that violence is brutal and shocking, and joy comes in the form of a mother’s breast milk spraying into the air like fireworks, or from a parent nurturing a child by—among other things—teaching them how to pop a squat in a verdant field.
The Girl Without Hands is a children’s fable that, in true Grimms fashion, is also a morality play (here, about avarice, egotism, and the purity of hope) laced with elements both adult-grade bleak and kid-friendly fantastical. That it also conveys an understated sense of feminist resolve, resourcefulness and independence only further enhances its power—although even on a purely aesthetic level, it’s as breathtaking, ingenious and inspired as any animated feature in recent years.