Jacques-Remy Girerd: ‘Hand-drawn Films Possess a Special Sensuality’

Renowned French animation director talks about “Aunt Hilda!”

Jacques-Remy Girerd: ‘Hand-drawn Films Possess Special Sensuality’

PARIS — Oscar-nommed for “A Cat in Paris,” a GKids pick-up for the U.S., French animation studio Folimage is at it again with its 2014 release, “Aunt Hilda!” Folimage founder Jacques-Remy Girerd, a European Film Award best animated feature winner for “Mia and the Magoo,” has once more taken up the directing reigns, teaming up with Benoit Chieux, to create the ecological adventure that is “Aunt Hilda!” In a not-so-distant future, agri-company DOLO has discovered a new cereal that could solve world hunger. Of course, with such a perfect solution comes quite the downfall. “Aunt Hilda!” segues from the UniFrance Rendez-vous in Paris to February’s Berlin Festival, where it world premieres in Generation Kplus. Variety talked to Girerd during the Rendez-vous:

What inspired the movie’s plot? 

 The notion of determinism applied to nature is something foreign to me. Our planet, which is some 4.5 billion years old, has not stopped evolving, forever at the mercy of chance and necessity, oscillating between equilibrium and instability, from the magnificent gas flatulence of its distant origins. The duration of human history is nothing in terms of the full extent of geological time, but, since the second half of the twentieth century, man has done everything to upset the notion of equilibrium. Uranium 238, silicate minerals, carbon dioxide all of them in their natural state, have all been on earth long before man. But it’s been thanks to man that the dangerous effects of all those elements have been brought to the fore. The Antarctic is heating up so dangerously that polar bears are in danger of disappearing. The living mass of oceans has been reduced 75% in less than half a century. Fukushima rocked the world at its very foundations…. I derive no pleasure whatsoever from painting such a grim picture of things. Two-legged creatures have also built the pyramids of Giza, made heart transplantation a reality, invented fauvism, goats-milk cheese, rock music and democracy. As a storyteller, I can’t help but be dumbfounded by the creative genius of homo sapiens, but at the same time terrified by their misdeeds. It’s impossible to see only the good, the positive. But it’s also impossible not to think of ruin, and impossible as well not to react. In the realm of fiction, of course. “Aunt Hilda!” is a modern fable, a Lumieresque lampoon: “Science with no conscience is forcibly the ruin of the soul”.

Who is Hilda for you ?

Aunt Hilda is at the heart of the film, a woman of a mature age. That’s not so frequent in an animated film. She’s pretty, but not excessively so, strong but not excessively so, temperamental, but not excessively so. She’s over forty but looks in her early thirties. Good God! That woman, she’s given me a headache or two, not to mention the odd kick in the butt. But I’ve also had a good go at her, set her a trap or two. She fought back, but I held fast. She used her charms, stamped, but I grinned and bore it, laid low. She gradually became more gentle… I invented her, re-invented her, until she became the real heroine. You’ve guessed it: I love her. The voice of Sabine Azema perfected her by giving her a tongue…and a very fine one at that. Aunt Hilda is the image of our old planet, as robust a Neanderthal woman and as delicate as a precious plant. She was crying out to be offered a role on the big-screen.

Why did you opt for a more hand-drawn animation over CGI or any other type of animation? What do you think it adds?

 Animation the world over has definitely veered towards 3D. Most animated films in the world today go for the use of that tool. Folimage and a few other companies, among them Japan¡s Ghibli Studio, have chosen to stick to traditional animation. It’s not that we’re trying to be clever, or that we’re backward. It’s simply that this type of 2D animation gives us extraordinary graphic freedom. We love that. At Folimage, we deliver prêt-à-porter merchandise, mixing tradition and modernity, because even though all the drawings are done by hand, and the sets are painted with a brush, everything is then reworked along the digital chain, and enhanced by the very latest software. We create the synthesis between both. For us, CGI is just another tool that allows us to make movies. It isn’t our priority tool in that respect. The important thing continues to be the ability to create beautiful stories. Technique or formatting should not guide the choice of spectators. Diversity is necessary, and must be defended. If all films looked alike that would be sad, wouldn’t it? I’ll also say that hand-drawn films possess a special sensuality, a gentleness and heat that computers can’t render. That’s what we love and appeals to us more than anything else.

What message did you want to send with “Aunt Hilda!” if any?

 Between Dolores, a cruel and greedy CEO at the head of an all-consuming food-agriculture conglomerate, and Aunt Hilda, a botanist pushing the ecological cause, with the gift of gab, there’s quite hefty message there. I suppose you can say that the film speaks out against the cynicism of big multinationals. At the very beginning I thought of the idea of a philosophical fable. Of course, in any philosophical fable, the minute you hit the terrain of the real, the political dimension inevitably surges to the fore. In the story, there is interaction between different spheres: Political power, international trade, the scientific world, ecology and ethics. That interaction, and the problems of the values deriving therewith, allows the story to advance. That, I think, is the role of the artist, and filmmakers in particular: To talk about today, and to cast a look upon the world around us. It is one of the fundamental and absolutely necessary filaments to any society. I did not, however, set out to make a “thesis movie”. The more time goes by, the less I think that the message is important in the cinema. Spectators are going to find different things in the film, depending on their culture, knowledge and convictions. So we didn’t set out to make any didactic film, but a comedy! But though there’s no message being hurled at anyone, there are probably situations that can lead spectators to take a stand one way or other, to react. The world is complex and I certainly don’t think I’m capable of saying: “This is how it should be.” We present, on screen, our own values, but do not in any way wish to hold them up as principles. Ecological problems exist in our planet, and we couldn’t turn a blind eye to that, but it wasn’t our intention either to place them at the heart of our project.

In the movie, Dolores lives a greedy, sedentary life underground. Do you think she was aware of the harm she was causing? What does this say about corporate leadership?

What drives Aunt Hilda is her respect for the vegetable world. She loves her plants more than anything else. What drives Dolores is money, and the absurd amount of it she amasses. They really are two different visions of the world: one ethical, the other completely perverted by the notion of profit. In that respect, Aunt Hilda talks about our world today, where the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. These inequalities, which are widening, are a very worrying source of social imbalance. 1% of the wealthiest people possess almost 50% of the world’s assets. Like Dolores, the rich don’t see the wretchedness or the unsustainable side of this situation; they are enclosed in their golden bunker and complete lose sight of and all sense of reality. Their joy resides solely in amassing assets, steeped as they are in their crazy race, to the detriment of the equilibrium of the planet. Many observers think that the humanitarian, ecological and political cost of this will be enormous.

What age demographic are you trying to reach with this film? As an animated film, it seems like it would be meant for children, but there aren’t any children in the movie. Are you hoping this will be a catalyst for change?

When I was little, my favourite films were the Zorro movies, like millions of kids all over the world. So it’s not necessary to have a child-actor, or a little blue rabbit, or a funny little cat for young audiences to identify with things. Who made up that silly rule? It just isn’t true. It’s just a convenient formula, as far as I’m concerned. An adult can easily identify with things if a character is intelligently constructed. Aunt Hilda, who conserves much of her child’s spirit (she talks to her plants, for instance) or Aldashin who still wears different colour socks, are characters that can allow us that identification. They are readily familiar to us, and also basically good people. They take the spectator, especially the young spectator, by the hand, and lead him through the story. Hilda’s plants also play this very basic role. To capture the attention of a child, the film has, first of all, to establish complicity with him or her, reach straight to his or her heart, thanks to nice dialogues, the interplay among characters, humor, comedy, graphics, colors. We unfurl a wide array of narrative tools to replace token, hackneyed, watchdogs. From that point of view, “Aunt Hilda” is a film meant for children.