‘April and the Extraordinary World’ (‘Avril et le monde truque’): Film Review

April and the Extraordinary World - H 2015
Courtesy of StudioCanal

April and the Extraordinary World - H 2015

A clever nuts-and-bolts dystopian adventure that sees France stuck in the industrial middle ages.

Marion Cotillard voices this animated tale inspired by the world of Jacques Tardi.

The work of the great comic book artist Jacques Tardi is cleverly and beautifully carried to the big screen in April and the Extraordinary World (Avril et le monde truque), a surreal sci-fi period piece that reimagines mid-20th century Paris as a smog-filled, steam-powered Napoleonic empire whose future lies in the hands of an orphaned young woman, voiced by French star Marion Cotillard.

Winner of the top prize at this year’s Annecy fest, the StudioCanal release — directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci — is another case of Gallic animation providing a witty 2D alternative to mainstream feature-length fare in a movie that pays homage to both film noir and Jules Verne while satirizing France’s industrial past. If the third act gets a tad broad, April nonetheless delivers enough intelligent laughs to satisfy discerning audiences, with more accolades due on the horizon.

Tardi has been one of France's leading graphic novelists for several decades, employing a thick ligne claire style heavily influenced by films of the 1930s and '40s, with many stories set within the grim working-class neighborhoods of Paris. He’s illustrated everything from Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night to historical accounts of the First and Second World Wars, while contributing to the “steampunk” aesthetic with his series Adele Blanc-Sec (adapted to the screen by Luc Besson in a busy live-action version).

Transforming Tardi’s unique world into a full-fledged narrative, screenwriters Ekinci and Benjamin Legrand (who penned the original Snowpiercer comics) imagine what would happen if France circa 1941 was still stuck in the Industrial Revolution, with automobiles and overhead cable cars powered by fossil-fueled steam engines. Choking in a polluted haze — which isn’t all that different from today, actually — Paris is a depicted as a gloomy capital flanked by not one but two Eiffel Towers and ruled by Napoleon V, who’s entrusted a tenacious police chief, Pizoni (Benoit Briere), to capture a serum that could render France’s army immortal in the ongoing world charcoal wars (which, in one of several shrewd twists, are being fought over peaceful, tree-filled Canada).

The serum is the invention of a family of scientists who, in a fast and fun prologue, are shown to have all but disappeared, leaving behind their teenage daughter, April (Cotillard), to carry on their mission. April is a tomboyish loner whose only friend is her snide talking cat, Darwin (voiced by actor-singer Philippe Katerine), though she soon teams up with one of Pizoni’s agents, Julius (Marc-Andre Grondin), on a journey that will take them to the heart of the empire and beyond, divulging the vast conspiracy that has made the world what it is — and could possibly make it better.

There’s plenty of sociopolitical satire to chew on in the filmmakers’ depiction of a France that’s technologically far behind the times but arrogant enough not to know it, with lots of comic relief coming from April’s granddad, Pops (the great Jean Rochefort), who one-ups everyone around him with his brilliantly wacky inventions — including a full-scale Victorian-style house that, at one point, gets up on its own six legs, runs out onto the street and jumps into the Seine.

Providing many such tongue-in-cheek moments amid an otherwise dark tale of greed, hubris and environmental devastation, Ekinci and Desmares artfully portray an extraordinary world — or a “rigged world,” per the French title — that’s never too far from our own, and the film’s save-the-planet message is as pertinent right now as it is in Tardi’s twisted parallel universe of steel, smoke and urban malaise. (One memorable scene has couples dancing with gas masks at a Parisian carnival.) It’s only when the story heads to pure sci-fi territory later on that April stretches itself a bit thin, though a smart epilogue manages to put things in perspective for both the characters and viewer.

Agreeably old-school in its animation approach, the movie bathes us in a sepia-toned epoch stretching from the late 19th century until the 1940s — a period when France was still a leader in terms of innovation and where visitors from across the globe could marvel at steel-and-glass constructions like the Grand Palais (a key location in the film). By showing that one of the high points of modern French history could also be the source of its dystopic demise, Tardi and his team ingeniously underline the hard costs of technological progress, or in this case, regress. One step forward, two steps back.

Production companies: Je Suis Bien Content, StudioCanal, Arte France Cinema, Jouror Distribution, Kaibou Production, Need Productions, RTBF-Radio Television Belge Francophone, Proximus, Wallimage SA
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Marc-Andre Grondin, Jean Rochefort, Philippe Katerine, Bouli Lanners, Olivier Gourmet
Directors: Franck Ekinci, Christian Desmares
Screenwriters: Franck Ekinci, Benjamin Legrand
Producers: Marc Jousset, Brice Garnier, Franck Ekinci, Michel Dutheil
Graphic creator: Tardi
Artistic directors: Luciano Lepinay, Christian Desmares
Animators: Patrick Imbert, Nicola Lemay, Nicolas Debray
Editor: Nazim Meslem
Composer: Valentin Hadjadj
International sales: StudioCanal

Not rated, 103 minutes