Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Stopmotion’ is an Inspiration in Madness

Director: Robert Morgan
Writers: Robin King, Robert Morgan
Stars: Aisling Franciosi, Stella Gonet, Tom York

Synopsis: A stop-motion animator struggles to control her demons after the loss of her overbearing mother.

Robert Morgan’s uncanny mixed live action and animation feature, Stopmotion, belongs in the genre of obsessive artists being driven to madness. Stopmotion is reminiscent of Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor, and Anne Oren’s Piaffe. Stopmotion also evokes Lucky McKee’s directorial debut May, the oeuvre of Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, and the work of Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña. 

From the moment humans realized they could metonymically exchange one symbol for another, there has been storytelling. From 4000 years BCE to shadows on Plato’s cave back through to stick marionettes. Even ancient societies had their effigies. 

Madness and the artist is recursively documented. Camille Claudel had her clay, bronze, and marble; along with a thirty year stay in Montdevergues Asylum. Richard Dadd his razor, fairies, and Broadmoor Hospital. Louis Wain his psychedelic cats and fifteen years in two asylums. Aloïse Corbaz her imagined love affair with Kaiser Wilhelm; reams of paper, found materials and horror vacui. Unica Zürn her Hexentexte [The Witches’ Texts] and automatic drawings.  Leonora Carrington her debutante hyena, mirror writing, and escape from an asylum via trickery.

Ella Blake (Aisling Franciosi) is a stop-motion model maker and animator living in a spartan and semi-sadistic situation with her famed animator mother, Suzanne (Stella Gonet). Suzanne’s hands are atrophying due to advanced arthritis and Ella is her “poppet” who does everything from creating her fuzzy Ray Harryhausen inspired stop-motion film to cutting up her sizeable steaks. Ella is Suzanne’s “meat puppet.” Whatever ideas or inspirations Ella might have are brushed away by Suzanne. She is simply required to be as still as the creations she is manipulating for Suzanne. “Don’t you breathe, don’t you move a muscle,” Suzanne demands of her exhausted child.

Living with Suzanne and devoting her life to the shrine of her mother’s talents has the asceticism of religious ritual. Ella is trapped. Even when she seeks out sensual and social pleasure with her boyfriend, Tom (Tom York) and his successful commercial animator sister, Polly (Therica Wilson-Read), Ella is somewhat absent. It’s as if Suzanne’s physical debilitation has been passed on to her daughter who is beginning to experience a moribund mental state.

Suzanne’s janus-faced behavior reaches a crucial point when her puppetry of Ella causes the latter to being to make an error. Suzanne has a stroke and Ella, for the first time, is free – but free to do what? She promises her unconscious hospital bed ridden mother that she will “finish her film.” Tom is trying to take care of Ella but finds her increasingly resentful of his ministrations. In her mind, Tom is a hobbyist – people like him and his music – but he’s a white-collar worker first. Ella is the real deal, an artist ready to fully immerse herself in her project. However, for so many years Ella has convinced herself that she is “just the hands,” and everyone else was the brains. “I have no voice,” she says.

Moving out of Stella’s home into a near empty decaying apartment block, Ella sets up her equipment. She recreates her mother’s Cyclops animation (highly symbolic writing from Morgan and co-scribe Robin King) but is listless. What happens next? A little girl (Caoillinn Springall) from a neighboring apartment takes a keen interest in Ella’s work. She also tells Ella that the story is boring. It needs something else. It needs a lot more. It needs Ella to dig into her fracturing psyche and pull something out which is visceral and dangerous.

Morgan makes no secret of the fact that Little Girl is Ella. The nagging and persistent voice who tells her, “You better take me seriously or I won’t tell you how the story ends.” If Ella does not cave into Little Girl’s increasingly abject demands then she will disappear and with her will go her only chance to finally speak. The fairy tale references fly thick and fast. A little girl lost in the woods; but it’s not a wolf who is chasing her. No, that’s too obvious. It’s something else – something almost indefinable. He is the Ash Man (James Swanton), and he stalks the bungalow where the lost girl has taken refuge. He will visit the little girl over three nights.

Ella’s apartment, the bungalow, and her memories of her mother’s house all blur into one space. Just as the puppet who represents the Little Girl of the story, and Ella herself, becomes more faceless and made up of rotting meat, animal carcasses, her own hair, her own body. Morgan isn’t interested in restrained – he’s interested in the atmosphere of perpetual unease. Cronenbergian body horror, meets Jodorowsky, meets the grimmest Hausmärchen.

Morgan said of his film, “[Stop-motion animation] is static yet moving; dead and alive at the same time. It’s the perfect metaphor through which to explore Ella’s struggle.” Ella has been used as a puppet; a marionette set dancing by Suzanne. She dreads that she is, at most, a ventriloquist’s dummy for other people. Her fantasy interactions with Suzanne are full of taunts, just as the interactions with her id creature. 

“We’re all mad here,” said the hatter to Alice. Yet, Alice was a clever and canny girl able to outwit the absurdity of Wonderland. When Ella goes through her own looking glass anyone who appears sane is the threat. Polly is happy to steal her concepts because she doesn’t believe Ella will ever use them. Polly’s “inspiration” comes from drugs. Tom is a numbing anti-depressant. The psychiatry is the enemy. Whatever egg-like orb the Ash Man wants Ella to ingest is a threat but is it also her swallowing herself alive? 

None of the brilliance of Robert Morgan’s work would be possible without his incredible models. Like Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay they are inspired by found objects. Ella patiently explains the skeleton of a stop-motion figure to Little Girl who demands more mortician’s wax. Little Girl insists on the same kind of perfection Suzanne did – but her perfection comes from the abhorrent. Dirt is déclassée, maggots are interesting, but going beyond putrefaction into artistic purity is the goal. The always stellar Aisling Franciosi uses her wide-eyed and often vacant stare to pierce the veil between seeing and being seen. She has observed life but has never properly partaken in it. Even the sex scenes with Tom echo that it is his mutable flesh which arouses her.

Rarely does a debut feature come out so fully embodied and realized. The score by Lola de la Mata fusing with the carnivalesque and grotesque production design by Felicity Hickson (who has notably worked with both Peter Strickland and Ben Wheatley). The eldritch but also neon gel soaked cinematography of Léo Hinstin. The costuming by frequent Strickland collaborator and designer Saffron Cullane (who also worked on Censor) and the creature effects by Dan Martin. 

Stopmotion is a psychodrama, a study of obsession, a look into repressed rage, and the burgeoning artistic psychopath. “Don’t be afraid. Great artists always put themselves into their work” Little Girl tells Ella. Perfection comes from abnegation of self and the embracing of it. Once a piece of art is made, does the maker just go back into a box until they are required to appear again? The artist tears themselves into little pieces trying to make something “real.” The horror vacui – the fear of empty spaces is Ella psychological struggle. Stopmotion makes Ella the puppet master and puppet. Magnificently deranged cinema – Robert Morgan is a virtuoso of the uncanny.

Grade: A

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