'The Girl Without Hands': Annecy Review

A haunting minimalist fairytale for all ages.

Director Sebastien Laudenbach screened his first feature in competition at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival.

A Brothers Grimm tale is given a rather grim if beautifully rendered makeover in The Girl Without Hands (La Jeune fille sans mains), which marks the feature debut of French animation director Sebastien Laudenbach. Composed of broad, colorful brushstrokes and minimalist figuration, this seldom-told story can be a bit slow on the plot side but makes up for it with exquisite artistry and a welcome sense of gloom. Voiced by real-life couple Anais Demoustier and Jeremie Elkaim, the low-budget production premiered in Cannes’ ACID sidebar and played Annecy’s competition section, with more fests and Francophone art houses on the horizon.

Any story about a young woman who gets her hands chopped off by her father is bound to be a bit of a downer, so it’s nice to see that Laudenbach doesn’t sugarcoat the nastiness that has always been a major part of the Brothers Grimm oeuvre and that has often been whitewashed so that kids don’t walk away with too many nightmares.

In Girl, the titular heroine (Demousiter) is raised by a poor country miller (Olivier Broche), who makes a pact with the devil (Philippe Laudenbach) whereby he inadvertently gives his daughter away, receiving a river of gold in return. When the devil comes by years later to collect his debt — to rape the girl — her purity repels him, and the resulting frustration leads her father to lop off her hands with an ax.

Things don’t get much better from there, although the girl has a slight period of reprieve when she meets a charming prince (Elkaim) who marries her and gives her a pair of (rather useless) golden hands. But quicker than you can say “Mirror, mirror,” he heads off to a long war and leaves her pregnant and prey to even more deviltry.

As dark as such a story sounds, Laudenbach’s animation style gives it a refreshing brand of airiness that often borders on abstraction, with drawings that seem only half-completed in certain sequences, evoking actions and backgrounds in a few quick lines. The style is reminiscent of certain Japanese prints and the work of French artists like Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, using pastels and gouaches to convey changes in tone while recreating the Grimm fantasy in impressionistic fashion.

Sound design by Julien Ngo Trong and Xavier Marsais also brings plenty of atmosphere, as does the voice work of Demoustier and Elkaim, which helps to carry a plot that can definitely drag in places despite a concise 73-minute running time. Still, kudos are in store for both the actors and director for offering up a very adult version of a children’s fairytale that doesn’t skimp on the sex, body parts or bodily fluids, yet still creates a magical make-believe world that kids can both comprehend and fear.

Venue: Annecy International Animated Film Festival
Production company: Les Films Sauvages
Cast: Anais Demoustier, Jeremie Elkaim, Philippe Laudenbach, Sacha Bourdo
Director-screenwriter: Sebastien Laudenbach; adapted from the story by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Producer: Jean-Christophe Soulageon
Editors: Santi Minasi, Sebastien Laudenbach
Composer: Olivier Mellano
Compositing: Sebastien Laudenbach, Clorinde Baldassari
Sales: Pyramide International

In French
Not rated, 73 minutes