A cross between Charles Addams and Mad magazine, “The Suicide Shop” has cartoony fun with Jean Teule’s cult novel, in which a Parisian family sells all the tools a weary soul could want for offing himself. Since peddling poison vials and at-home seppuku kits struck director Patrice Leconte as too macabre for live-action, the director opted to embrace the absurdity and tell it as a 3D animated musical. Bemusing as that may be, unlike the pic’s depressingly in-demand boutique — one of the few businesses that booms during a recession — this iffy offering seems strangely out of sync with the times.
As directors Tim Burton and Henry Selick have frequently demonstrated, animation can be uniquely suited to dark and sinister tales. But the director of such life-validating fables as “The Hairdresser’s Husband” and “My Best Friend” doesn’t exactly share those helmers’ brooding streak; Leconte is an incorrigible comedian whose instinct isn’t to go all gothic with the material, but rather to spin the unmentionable into a curiously upbeat satire. With the striking visual look of a graphic novel and the simplicity of a children’s book, Leconte’s adaptation (featuring songs by Etienne Perruchon) makes light of misery, suggesting that suffering is one of the joys of being alive.
Tucked away on a cul-de-sac in an otherwise dreary city is a colorful little store that caters exclusively to the hopeless, selling rusty razorblades and other do-it-yourself kits to the would-be wristcutters of the world. The operation would be right at home on “Harry Potter’s” Diagon Alley, as would its proprietor, a mortician-like fellow with dark eyes and a pencil moustache named Mishima Tuvache.
Mishima is such an effective salesman, anyone who wanders in undecided leaves the shop with renewed resolve to take the plunge. Mishima is assisted by his wife and two mopey moppets, Marilyn and Vincent, named after famous suicides Monroe and Van Gogh. The dour duo clearly got their father’s genes, though the same can’t be said for the family’s new baby, Alan, an irrepressibly upbeat lad who has an unwelcome way of cheering up the inconsolable. Alan not only smiles constantly but begins to sabotage the family business the instant he’s old enough to think for himself.
Desperate for a solution, Mishima batters the boy’s self-esteem at every turn, and when that fails, even suggests that Alan take up chain smoking. In Teule’s book, the family eventually succeeds in breaking Alan’s spirit and driving him to suicide, but the film can’t abide anything that dark and instead supplies a finale so upbeat, it’s surely intended to be as tongue-and-cheek as the air of winking mock-tragedy that characterizes the rest of the story.
For obvious reasons, “The Suicide Shop” stands in stark contrast with the sort of four-quadrant toon programming common in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean it was intended only for adults. Savvy subtitling (which preserves the rhyme in the various French-language songs) will surely dissuade many younger viewers abroad, though the tone is so playful, kids should have little trouble navigating the toon’s irreverent treatment of prickly subjects, including a scene in which Alan and his pals spy through his sister’s bedroom window.
As with his live-action features, Leconte has a way of making unexpected choices with the characters and story — a tendency that animation allows him to extend to camera moves and overall design choices. Despite its short running time, the film feels scattered and a bit unfocused in parts, especially as the narrative veers away from the vanilla character of Alan in order to spotlight various melancholy customers and the red-eyed rats who serenade them.
Though heavily assisted by computers, the toon feels handmade, using a technique that manipulates the eyes, mouths and limbs of various sketches without having to re-render each frame. It’s a charming style, rich in detail but lo-fi enough to remain personal.