Marion Cotillard In Steampunk France

A delightful alternate world adventure, the French animated feature April and the Extraordinary World (hereafter April) is a triumphant collaboration among directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci (producers of Persepolis), renowned graphic novelist Jacques Tardi and star Marion Cotillard. April takes the viewer to an Earth which never knew the blights of two World Wars or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet it cannot be said that the results are paradisiacal.

A rash order of the French Emperor Napoleon III critically changes the shape of French civilization. Because of that order, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 never happens. Shortly thereafter, promising young scientists such as Pasteur, Hertz, and Einstein start disappearing around the world. Denied the collective inventive fruits of these scientists’ genius, human technology stays stuck in the age of steam. Eventually, France is plagued by horribly sooty air and badly decimated forests. Instead of the German Empire, the French fight a prolonged war with the Americas to possess Canada’s forests.

The Franklins are a family of scientists who have little desire in being forcibly recruited into working for the French military. They’re more interested in developing the Ultimate Serum, ingestion of which will cure all illness and physical injury. When grandfather Pops (Jean Rochefort) and parents Paul and Annette disappear during a pursuit by the police, daughter April (Cotillard) is determined to carry on her family’s work. But while April scrounges for chemicals to complete the Ultimate Serum, she’s sought by fanatical police Inspector Pizoni as well as a mysterious technologically advanced organization which utilizes cyborg animal spies and self-propelled thunderclouds.

Desmares and Ekinci delight the viewer by slipping into April a cheerful streak of anti-authoritarianism. Pizoni, the police officer who relentlessly pursues the Franklins, continually delivers bumbling comic relief. Public government lying gets ridiculed by seeing a naval defeat spun as a “near victory.” Napoleon IV’s depiction in a decidedly small body size and weak facial features tells the viewer everything they need to know about his wielding of power.

Tardi’s designs for the alternate world France makes that imagined place come alive in a way that the alternate world of The Empire Of Corpses failed to achieve despite its globe-hopping story. Seeing breathing masks worn every day by the well-off demonstrates that class differences still determine whose lungs get ruined by heavy soot in the air. Cable cars, steamer cars, and mobile beltways show what transportation exists in a world without gasoline-powered vehicles.

American viewers will probably not be familiar with Tardi’s name if they’re not acquainted with the bande desinee scene. But Tardi’s work is available in the US thanks to Fantagraphics Books’ translations of such seminal titles as The Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec and It Was The War Of The Trenches.

Those who associate Tardi’s artwork with emotionally dark images will find familiarity in views of the alternate Paris cityscape. April’s Paris is less City of Light and more City of Soot.

What will prove surprising is seeing Tardi’s visual playfulness with the technological miracles that also oddly fit into April’s alternate world of 1941. The mysterious technologically advanced organization employs inventions that feel compatible with nature (e.g. the power plant) or inspired by a design from nature (e.g. an airplane which resembles a house fly). The film’s show-stealer, though, is Pops’ Mega Mansion. Not only is its armor strong enough to withstand laser attacks, but its manner of underwater propulsion will make a viewer smile.

The voice actors for April deliver performances that make their characters sing with life. Rochefort’s Pops is the type of brilliant mechanical inventor whose curiosity is mixed with a charmingly dry sense of humor. Marc-Andre Grodino plays Julius the pickpocket, who eventually finds his better angels.

Cotillard succeeds in making April’s emotional complexity understandable to audiences young and old. The young woman’s default position of emotional guardedness has been the result of traumatic circumstance. Constant police pursuit forces her to be wary of who she can trust. The disappearance or mysterious abductions of her older relatives means she has to grow up alone. Darwin thc cat’s presence gives April emotional balance. It helps April a lot that the feline talks and is intelligent.

Philippe Katerine’s Darwin provides April’s emotional heart. Darwin is the result of a failed earlier attempt to create the Ultimate Serum. He does do such normal cat things as bristle his fur and attack mice. But the talking cat also displays a fair amount of sass, and indeed gets some of the film’s best lines. Darwin proves so lovable that a couple of moments where the cat nearly dies may traumatize cat-loving kids.

April strikes the right balance in its depiction of violence. Bullets fly and bombs do explode with enough frequency to remind viewers of the perils of the adventures of April and her friends. The most seriously violent moment is the depiction of a character’s fatal wound. However, such images establish the fatality of the injury without going full gorehound.

When the film takes the viewer to the place where the missing scientific geniuses have been kept, the visual contrast with dull and sooty 1941 alternate France cannot be more striking. Viewers’ eyes will bug out at the amazing miracles present in this secret world. A viewer’s suspension of disbelief will admittedly be seriously challenged on learning the final secret of the titular extraordinary world. But as a metaphor for the film’s resolution, that revelation proves somewhat appropriate.

Desmares and Ekinci’s film shows by example its point about power and the wisdom to use it wisely. It suggests individual responsibility is key to such wise use. The large organizations seen in April repeatedly demonstrate their incapability of possessing such wisdom.

Overall, April does not reach Pixar’s best artistic animated highs. The Bay Area animation studio’s strongest works display a singular talent to show comedy, wonder, and at least one heartbreaking moment all in one film. April and its alternate world definitely doesn’t go as far as Pixar emotionally. But its imagination and its talking cat goes far enough to distinguish it from the general herd of other commercially animated features.

(April And The Extraordinary World opens April 8, 2016 at the Shattuck Cinemas (2230 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley) and the Embarcadero Center Cinema (One Embarcadero Center, Promenade Level, San Francisco). The version being screened here is the English-language dubbed version featuring such actors as Paul Giamatti and Susan Sarandon. For further information about the film, go here.)

About the Author

I'm a film reviewer for the Beyond Chron blog. Agnes Varda and Hirokazu Kore-eda are among my favorite filmmakers. I occasionally break down and watch a good action film...but don't tell anyone.

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