Sunday, February 25, 2024

An Artist Puts Herself in Her Work in Robert Morgan's Stopmotion with Aisling Franciosi

(Robert Morgan, 2023, UK, 93 minutes) 

"She's the brains and I'm the hands."--a daughter explains her role in her mother's life

For his beautiful and terrifying debut feature, UK filmmaker Robert Morgan builds his film around the painstaking animation technique of the title. 

It's the same technique that brought Rankin/Bass's holiday perennial Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to sweet and fuzzy life in 1964, delighting generations of children, though it has also powered the terrifying visions of Czechoslovakia's Jan Švankmajer, Poland's Walerian Borowczyk, and England's American-born Brothers Quay, prolific shorts makers who have similarly melded live action with stop-motion in their features.

These are some of the best known stop-motion animators, but they're hardly alone, even if it isn't exactly a crowded field. With the proliferation of CGI, stop-motion has come to seem like an increasingly archaic art, though it's something most anyone can do--if they have the patience. It's a technical skill, too, but it requires the kind of preternatural patience most human beings lack. Case in point: Oscar-winning special effects supervisor Phil Tippett, who took 30 years to make 2021's horrifying and hilarious Mad God, his sole feature. Granted, he was busy working on various Star Wars and Jurassic Parks at the time, but he never gave up on his passion project. 

That's the milieu in which Ella Blake (Aisling Franciosi, an Irish actress who has an affinity for the dark side) grew up. 

Morgan provides no backstory, and nor does he need to. If Ella ever had a live-in father, he's long gone and doesn't merit a single mention. An electrifying opening sequence combines strobe-light effects with red and green colored gels (or the appearance of colored gels) to present this lovely young lady as both angel and demon. Aren't we all, in a sense? It's just that life, and the way it unfolds, can push us in more of one direction than the other. That's definitely the case for Ella. 

Though she should be on her own, this fully-grown adult lives with her domineering mother, Suzanne (veteran TV actress Stella Gonet), a stop-motion animator. It's possible Ella spent her youth simply watching Suzanne work--or trying to stay out of her way--but she now serves as her hands since arthritis has rendered them too rigid to move her one-eyed creatures by millimeters, photographing and cataloguing each movement in the process. Ella, in other words, is also an artist, but her mother doesn't see it that way; viewing her more as a tool or an extension of her own body. 

As the film begins, Ella is still somewhat autonomous. She has an attentive boyfriend, Tom (Poldark's Tom York), who works in a realtor's office, and a social circle that includes his party girl sister, Polly (The Witcher's Therica Wilson-Read), who works at an ad agency, but she lacks any close friends. Though Tom fancies himself a musician, it's mostly wishful thinking.  

At home, though, Ella also waits on her mother hand and foot, doing all of the things Suzanne can no longer do for herself, like cooking dinner and cutting her steak. This marks the beginning of the film's meat motif. Raw, cooked, sliced and diced--there's a lot of it in Stopmotion--serving as a reminder that humans are essentially meat, or as a certain Arizona band once put it, we're meat puppets; a notion this film takes literally.

Instead of praising her daughter for her loyalty and dedication, Suzanne consistently berates her, maintaining her dominance by convincing Ella she has no ideas of her own, and that if she does, they're surely worthless. Ella isn't convinced that the plot of her mother's latest film, which revolves around a community of Cyclopes, is especially compelling, but she keeps it to herself and does everything Suzanne asks of her exactly as instructed.

Morgan never explains why Suzanne doesn't hire a home health aid or other professional to help her around the flat, and it's another one of those questions that doesn't necessitate a definitive answer. It's possible she can't afford it on her cult filmmaker's salary. It's also possible that she's enough of a lonely, miserable narcissist--unlike Ella, she has no social circle whatsoever--that she prefers to boss her only daughter around. 

I wouldn't say that Ella grins and bears her mother's abuse. The look on her face says it all; but we see more of her unhappiness than Suzanne ever does. 

If her mother is a fairly one-dimensional character, though well played by Gonet, Ella has to reveal several facets over the course of the film, and Franciosi makes full use of her expressive face, effectively building from the subtle to the extreme, which also made her perfect for The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent's revenge thriller follow-up to The Babadook, in which Aisling lived up to the precedent set by the consistently-excellent Australian actress Essie Davis.

When Suzanne suffers a stroke that lands her in a coma, Ella is finally on her own, but she doesn't see her newfound freedom as a gift. There wouldn't be much of a film if she did. In fact, her first thought is to continue working on her mother's project. When this plan goes awry, Tom suggests she get her own place, since the bad vibes left in Suzanne's wake are doing a number on her psyche. Using his connections, he lines up a spacious, if gloomy flat for her in a mostly-abandoned council estate. Though it's so run-down the elevator is on the blink, the estate recalls the modern, if eerie complex in Andrew Haigh's ghost story All of Us Strangers, which only ever appeared to be inhabited by the two men at the heart of the story. 

There's only one other person here, too. The less said about this individual, who may or may not be a tenant, the better. Basically, they live in the area, they have a lot of free time, and they're curious about Ella's vocation, so she explains how stop-motion works, concluding, "I like it, and I'm good at it, and it feels like I'm bringing something to life." Boy, does she ever. 

Though the change in location represents a chance at a new start, Ella is stymied for ideas until the guest tells her a story about a girl being chased through the woods by a scary figure. Ella becomes so taken with the concept that she builds an entire film around it. Though her mother worked primarily with felt, Ella starts out with mortician's wax until the guest suggests meat, dubbing the girl's nemesis the Ash Man after sprinkling ashes over his meat-covered armature. Though the perils of meat--rot, maggots, stench--would be obvious to any sane person, Ella's tenuous grasp on sanity deteriorates as she loses herself in her work to the exclusion of everything else.

If Franciosi appears in every scene, Morgan alternates between Ella's actions and her visions. The further she plunges into her film, the more it invades her consciousness, and the more he shows what she imagines, making minimal distinction between the two. The use of the girl, the man, and the house in the woods recalls 2018's The Wolf House by Chilean animators Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña (as with Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room, they filmed the entire thing in a museum). I have no idea if it served as inspiration, but there are similar ideas and techniques at work. 

Though it isn't unusual for stop-motion animators to contribute sequences to live-action films, much as the Brothers Quay did for Julie Taymor's Frida and León and Cociña did more recently for Ari Aster's Beau Is Afraid, Morgan handled, or at least supervised, the animation in Stopmotion himself, making the film a sort of warped self-portrait. Any kind of work this exacting, repetitive, and time-consuming could do a number on one's mental health, an idea taken in an entirely different direction in Ann Oren's portrait of a first-time Foley artist in last year's criminally overlooked Piaffe. But what if the artist's parent is also a tyrant? Chances are things won't end well. As Ella acknowledges late in the game, "I'm scared of what will happen if I carry on. And scared of what will happen if I don't." 

Nonetheless, moments of normalcy flicker into life, most instigated by the kind, if slightly thick Tom, even as Ella becomes dismissive and condescending to everyone except her new neighbor, a figure nearly as domineering as her mother but in a much less threatening form. It's as if Ella were taking on some of Suzanne's worst traits. 

Not to give too much away, but she doesn't become Suzanne any more than Carrie becomes her tyrannical mother in Stephen King's novel or Brian De Palma's movie. She's both better and worse, stronger and weaker than the person who made her, and her life and her film eventually converge. Though it's possible it's all in her head, a coda suggests otherwise.

For all the ways Stopmotion reminded me of other films--films I quite like, mind you--like Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio and Prano Bailey-Bond's Censor, his first feature doesn't look or sound exactly like anyone else's. In addition to Nocturama DP Léo Hinstin's disorienting cinematography, which grows especially wiggy in a club sequence, composer Lola de la Mata's sound design incorporates haunting choral music with Gialloesque whistling, squeaky hinges, and other unsettling noises. 

It can be hard to grow up as the child of an artist, not least when that artist attempts to create you in their image, while never allowing you to completely develop your own identity or pursue your own interests. They would prefer that you stretch their canvases, clean their paint brushes, or type their manuscripts, much like Gina James, who dutifully typed up all of her mother's New Yorker film reviews since Pauline Kael refused to do it herself (to be fair, Ms. James seems to have turned out just fine). 

It can be handy for an artist to have full-time, unpaid help. It's also a great way to create a monster who will destroy everyone who enters their lair.

Stopmotion is now playing in Seattle at the Meridian. It comes to Shudder on May 31. Images from IFC Films via Collider (Aisling Franciosi), Samuel Dole/IFC Films/Shudder (Franciosi and Ella's creation), Flickering Myth (Franciosi and Tom York), and First Showing (poster image).

No comments:

Post a Comment