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Manuel de Layet [Film Festival 06.03.12] drama fantasy

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Sometimes we do get unexpected surprises, in a good way I mean, and this was my little slice of epiphany for this year's edition of Cannes. Sporting what might be the most confusingly poetic pitch of the week, and in all honesty that moniker can also be applied to the whole film, if you're not moved by that one you're dead. And that's me writing it. It's also a sublime fairytale about the construction of the Self. And how the fantasies of childhood are overgrown yet ever present in our persona.

This is the story of a six year old girl named Hushpuppy, living with her father Wink in the small community of Bathtub Louisiana. This is the best country ever, full of exotic people, water and fishes, away from the bleak surroundings of Dry-land. But one day, she breaks the Universe and causes the South Pole to melt, consequently flooding Bathtub and thawing aurochs that will stampede the Earth in search of her unless she manages to repair what she did.

There's a whole feel to it that reminds me of Harmony Korinne's Gummo; Something about blissful yet estranged life in ravaged surroundings. In this case it's a planned flooding: Bathtub has ended on the wrong side of a dam and was meant to be evacuated.

The resulting community is festive bunch of strong willed individual, happily drifting away from the what is happening on the other side. Bathtub has its own holidays, creeds, technology, and most importantly, since we are seeing all this through the eyes of a 6 years old, school system. All this clicks into a completely coherent yet absurd utopia, in which the little one will struggle with whatever life throws at her, starting with her father. Raising her like a boy, and teaching her self-reliance to the point of neglect, he's the central axis of her life. All will go awry when he disappears one day; on his return, Hushpuppy will strike him out of anger, therefore shattering her universe for ever.

As you might have guessed now, the core of the narrative relies strongly on magic thinking, that stage of growing up when you think everything you do has unfathomable consequences on your surroundings, mixing fantasy into the real world seamlessly. What really happens and the girl's understating of it are widely different. On that point the parti-pris of having the camera mostly at a toddler's height does a great job, we hear the narration from Hushpuppy and see the world, if not through her eyes at least from her viewpoint. This clever trick ends up in leaving the analytical and distancing part of the brain on hold. Suspension of disbelief in all it's glory, you'll be caught in a whirlwind of joy, sadness, hilarity and all the shades of emotion you might have shackled somewhere in the dark recesses of your gnarled souls.

It also turns a truly dramatic story about loss, bereavement, and hardships into a complete fairytale, using all the trademarks of the genre, especially the Beasts. Where do the aurochs come from? Basically a nature class dispensed by the local school. More of a rant about meat, to be precise, and about how millions of years ago we weren't but meat to some bigger mammals. The visual support for the discourse being some cave-painting tattooed on the thighs of the school mistress. Yes, I know, why didn't we have such teaching in our lives, I wonder. The resulting creatures are huge, furry, and must surely stink a mile away, being a cross between hogs and bulls.

Add to this one of the most gripping soundtracks of the year, completely sustaining the narration and giving to everything a depth that the mere images wouldn't be able to impart, clearly stating why audio is put first in the term audiovisual, and you'll have a truly magnificent experience. To quote the movie, all I can hope is that in a million years people will indeed know there was a Hushpuppy and that she lived in Bathtub.

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