The horror and futility of war are conveyed in terms both stilted and striking in “Cafard,” Flemish animator Jan Bultheel’s melancholy tribute to the 400-plus Belgian soldiers who fought as part of an armored-car division on the Eastern Front in World War I. Told from the fictionalized perspective of a world-champion wrestler seeking to right a terrible wrong through the spilling of German blood, this straightforward tale of revenge, loss, survival and self-reckoning gains as much as it loses from the use of motion capture: With its simple forms, bold colors, nondescript faces and detailed CGI backgrounds, the visual style blends realism and abstraction in ways that are undeniably arresting, if not always dramatically effective. Still, with enough appreciative attention from animation buffs and festival audiences, the arthouse-worthy curio could take its rightful place among the many new features observing the Great War’s centenary.
The graphic influence of up-to-the-minute video-game technology is apparent from the opening crane shot that brings us into the Belgian city of Ostend in August 1914, just in time to witness the terrible violation of a 15-year-old girl named Mimi (Maud Brethenoux) by a pack of German soldiers. Half a world away, professional wrestler Jean Mordant (Wim Willaert), has just been crowned world champion in Buenos Aires when news of the attack on his daughter sends him rushing home to Ostend. Feeling enraged and helpless, especially since the traumatized Mimi can’t remember which or even how many officers assaulted her, Jean becomes determined to strike back at the Germans. He ultimately joins the Corps Expeditionnaire des Autos-Canons-Mitrailleuses, or the ACM, a new Belgian military battalion that will presumably enable them to wipe out the Germans from the safety of heavily armored vehicles.
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Also enlisting alongside Jean are his trusty old coach, Victor (Sebastian Dewaele), and his randy young nephew, Guido (Maarten Thomas Ketels), who’s eager to see more than one type of action on the war front. But the men are almost immediately overtaken by a tedious lack of purpose. A strategic miscalculation results in the ACM’s unexpected transfer to Russia, where there’s little for the men to do but wait and drink. Jean’s experience does brighten considerably when he meets a lovely Russian nurse, Jelena (Dinara Drukarova); the fact that she has a husband does little to prevent a mutual attraction from developing. Elsewhere, the men enjoy a warm, earthy camaraderie with their brothers-at-arms, who name their armored vehicle Cafard, or “Cockroach,” in honor of its ostensible indestructibility. And our hero’s widespread fame — everyone seems to know who the great Jean Mordant is — helps get him out of a tight spot on more than one occasion.
But wherever he goes — and “Cafard,” following the surreal trajectory of the ACM itself, will ultimately take him as far as Mongolia, China, and the distant shores of the U.S. — Jean remains haunted by the inescapable memory of what Mimi endured and continues to endure in Ostend. Bultheel’s movie thus becomes a chronicle of one man’s disillusionment, not only with his glorious notions of heroism, but with the very idea of revenge; Jean’s one act of violent payback, in which he attacks a downed German military pilot, proves singularly unsatisfying. And the price of personal vengeance rises all the more steeply as the tides of history — and of sheer rotten luck — have their way with Jean and his men, whether it’s the onset of the Russian Revolution or a freak ambush in the Siberian wilderness.
While its dispassionate look at the war experience is refreshingly devoid of jingoism, all in all this is the sort of moral and psychological portrait that would have been better served by a more artful approach to character design. The virtues of motion capture are evident in the way that the characters’ physical gestures and actions feel fully inhabited by real actors, but it’s debatable whether that even counts as compensation, given how hard it is to forge a meaningful emotional connection to such vaguely formed, avatar-style faces. (It doesn’t help matters that the visual style seems to emphasize facial blemishes to an off-putting degree.) A love scene late in the proceedings evokes admiration for the filmmakers’ determination to reclaim animation as a grown-up storytelling medium, but it’s too crudely rendered, in the visual sense, to achieve anywhere near the intended level of intimacy.
Which is not to say that a minutely detailed, big-budget photorealistic approach (seen to such eerie, soulless effect in Robert Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf”) would have been much of an improvement. To their credit, Bultheel and his crew seem to understand that the human face is but one possible register of emotion, and they seem to have deliberately stylized their canvas in a way that naturally draws the eye away from the characters and toward the background. Though the film is being presented only in 2D, the occasional long, swooping “camera” movements enhance the illusion of depth and movement, and the buildings and landscapes have a design simplicity and a richness of color that proves remarkably atmospheric.
On a scene-by-scene basis, there’s a briskness and choppiness to the storytelling in “Cafard” that suggests the same material would not have held up to scrutiny in live-action form. In animated form, however, its narrative economy has its virtues, working in concert with the visuals and the music (particularly the recurrence of a song, “When All Is Lost,” poignantly performed by the Belgian pianist-singer Ann Pierle) to create a haunting spareness of effect. The movie leaves us with the sense of a dark, war-ravaged dreamscape, quickly conjured and then just as quickly whisked away, back into the long-lost memories of those who endured it.