Aleksandr Petrov is quite unique in the modern animation scene, perhaps in the whole history of the art, not for conceiving of his way of creating moving pictures, but for actually doing it. A student of Yuri Norstein, he starts from a similar basis but his methodology is at once simpler and far more artistically challenging. Petrov uses just one pane of glass and paints upon it with oil, and for the changes between frames, he adjusts the paint where possible, and where larger changes are needed, he repaints. In other words, every single frame of this animation is an oil painting, quite literally.
I discovered Petrov through the twin prongs of Ghibli’s support of him, helping to release his work and including it in their museum library, and his contribution to the Winter Days project, where his aesthetic was unique.
The Old Man and the Sea is his most lauded work, and in my experience the best. It won the Oscar for best short animation and perfectly balances artistry, innovation and a compelling, classic story. Based on the Hemmingway novella, it is the simple tale of an old fisherman who is considered washed up by his community, having failed to catch anything in 84 days. Even his young apprentice is told to find a new boat to fish with, and has to comply despite his loyalty. The old man goes out alone and so begins a battle with a huge fish that threatens to overcome his fading strength. It’s not a novel story but it allows for powerful moments and for an impressive showcase of Petrov’s painting skills, bringing with it as it does chances to paint not just people but shifting water, grand skies and most impressive of all, the fish down in the murky deep.
My Love feels almost resentful, as a follow-up. It feels as though The Old Man and the Sea was a very sincere effort to gain worldwide fame and renown, and the recognition was not enough. Petrov returns to Russian dialogue – The Old Man and the Sea being released in English and French – which is welcome, but the art style is much more impressionistic and less realist, and while the possibilities of the medium are better-explored – the light in an open door becomes the pages of a book, the characters transform to classical lovers and poets, the ground rushes up to become a wave – it all feels forced and contrived. The plot, based on a story by Shmelyov, revolves around a 15-year-old boy coming of age and initiating a romance with two possible love interests, treating them with typical – even shocking – immaturity, could function well for this kind of animation, but it just doesn’t feel like Petrov is interested. I know this is mostly speculative, but I was gratified to learn that Petrov’s contemporaries, including Norstein, found this film to be soulless and more of a technical showcase than a sincere animation. For a story about love, it seems so distant from its characters and almost disdaining. Of course, the technical side would have stunned me but for seeing it done more to my personal tastes in The Old Man and the Sea, which strikes the right balance between painterly and realistic both for animation and for my preferences in oils.
I want Petrov to be given a real chance. I want to see this incredible art form given a feature-length film release and to be amongst the most beautiful pieces of cinema ever seen. But story comes first – and the sincerity and love with which it is told. The Old Man and the Sea was perfect for a short film. It is that side of his art I’d love to see Petrov develop.