Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Le Jour des corneilles / The Day of the Crows

Here is an example of how sad it is that we in the English-speaking world are so closed off from the idea of films in foreign languages. Here is a remarkable Western animation project that cost seven million Euros, was funded with money from France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Canada, has a roaring performance from a big name like Jean Reno, and contains many very remarkable elements that simply don't make it into American feature-length animation or, indeed, Japanese anime. Films like TekkonKinkreet can come along that stand out remarkably, but they will have a very different, far less gentle quirkiness to them. For The Day of the Crows is characteristically, recognisably French, and benefits immeasurably from that.  

And for all it's ignored by English-speaking territories - for all, very possibly, it's purposely kept that way because the French have no interest in marketing outside the lands that speak French, rather pretending that all they have to offer is Code Lyoko and Totally Spies - the best French animation is in a good place. Though I long for Kerubim to end and Wakfu to return, Ankama remain the studio doing the best things in Flash (and yes, I include Ponies in that), the lazy A Cat in Paris actually did get marketed to the US to an extent after its Oscar nomination, and though I still wish they'd chosen another animation form, I continue to enjoy the second season of The Mysterious Cities of Gold

But Le Jour des corneilles stands apart from even those properties. Not necessarily better, but interesting in a very different way. It is less accessible, less obvious, less immediate. More challenging, more artful, and very much my sort of thing. And - perhaps reflecting that it is less obviously marketable - it is hard to find much information about, having only a French Wikipedia page (thankfully very easy to read with my lacklustre grip of the language). I must be grateful, then, for The Internet, that merry place where people can talk about properties others may not have heard of. It was following discussions of Wakfu and Mystérieuses Cités on Plus4chan that I found out about this - and where I had previously found out about Leafie, just so we're clear it's not all based on French-language works. 

I consider Le Jour des corneilles something of a gem. It thrusts you into a barely comprehensible world at first, where we are not sure what time period the piece takes place in, or what country, or what world. A scrawny, feral boy - never named - lives with his enormous brute of a father in the forest. The boy is not strong, but is quick and skilled, easily able to hunt and to help his father, who is a forest-dweller very capable of taking care of himself. Things become even weirder as we see that the boy also speaks with mute forest spirits, unsettling beings with human bodies but animal heads, wearing fairly modern clothes - of a hundred years ago, perhaps two. One of them he calls his mother, while others help him with his problems. One day, his father is badly injured while railing at a storm, and to help him, the animal spirits lead the boy out of the forest - the 'outre-monde' where his father says people disappear never to return. 

Outside the forest is a town, and it soon becomes apparent that this is not some post-apocalyptic world or fantasy, but that the father is simply a half-mad pariah from the nearby town, and the boy is more or less feral because of no contact with civilisation. He manages to find a doctor, who treats injured soldiers - perhaps giving a firm setting I'm afraid I couldn't definitively call - and drags his father in for treatment. Here, the boy has human contact for the first time, and when the doctor ropes in his daughter to keep the boy out of the way during an operation, an unlikely bond comes about - yet a rift between father and son is created. 

Though there are some stretches - one must accept the idea of the spirits of the dead lingering, and believe that a forest boy can establish a bond with a crow that extends to it doing him favours and even speaking rather like Pichu in Les Mystérieuses Cités D'Or - but this film thrives rather brilliantly on presenting fantastical, seemingly inexplicable things and then making them rational, and fitting them into what is essentially a realistic, even stark world view. The heart of this story isn't strange animals - though they do give a very, very beautiful climactic scene to this animation that wouldn't have worked in any other medium - but the story of lovers torn apart by disapproving parents, madness, bitterness and petty small-town politics. It is sophisticated and elegant in a way few animations are - which will also no doubt have critics claiming it has no audience. 

Admittedly, it is not made to be pretty. It is not meant to be - it is making a point about outcasts and the possibility of nobility in the ugly and base. But I did have problems with the design of the main, feral boy. He looks very much out of a French comic book, like Tommy Pickles from Rugrats redrawn by Astérix artist Albert Uderzo, but I think the film would have been a better commercial prospect and more immediately accessible if a design could be found that was still wild and feral-looking while also being a bit...well, cuter. With the adults so absolutely perfectly-designed, especially the father, the wicked old woman and the doctor, it's a shame that the fils just didn't quite seem right, and the same for the little girl he befriends. 

But at the heart of this film is its story, and that is done quite brilliantly. The pacing of the revelations is pitched exactly right and the lack of easy answers is refreshing. This is a film of mature animation, with challenging ideas, strange and unique visuals and no regard for conventions of comedy or action in animation. For that reason, it will go all but ignored worldwide, and that strikes me as real shame. 


  1. I really want to watch this now. I actually really like the style of the screenshots you've put up there too, even if some would think the style as maybe ugly. And who can't resist a bit of puppy love too eh?