×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Busan Film Review: ‘Cafard’

Technology giveth and taketh away in this melancholy motion-capture tribute to Belgian soldiers who fought in WWI.

With:
Wim Willaert, Dinara Drukarova, Sebastien Dewaele, Maarten Ketels, Benoit Gob, Mieke Dobbels, Thierry de Coster, Pierre Bourrel, Jiayi Zhao, Doug Rand, Maud Brethenoux. (Dutch, French, Russian, Mandarin, English dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4926026/

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Busan Film Review: ‘Cafard’

Reviewed online, Busan, Oct. 3, 2015. (In Busan Film Festival — Animation Showcase.) Running time: 92 MIN.

Production: (Animated — Belgium-France-Netherlands) A Tondo presentation, with the support of Flanders Audiovisual Fund, Netherlands Film Fund, Film and Audiovisual Centre — Wallonia Brussels Federation, CNC Nouvelles Technologies en Production, Media Programme, Eurimages, Screen Flanders, Enterprise Flanders, the Belgian Tax Shelter, in association with BNP Paribas Fortis Film Finance, Mollywood, in co-production with Superprod, Topkapi Films, Tarantula. (International sales: UDI Urban Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Arielle Sleutel.

Crew: Directed, written by Jan Bultheel. (Color, widescreen); music, Hans Helewaut; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Jan Schermer; re-recording mixer, Michel Schopping; character technical director, Stijn Valkenborg; lead 3D modeler, Andre Ferwerda; visual effects director, Pieter Swusten; motion capture directors, Emmanuel Linot, Jean Francois Szlapka; associate producers, Alex Verbaere, David Claikens, Guy Van Baelen, Wilfried Van Baelen; assistant director, Peter Paul Milkain.

With: Wim Willaert, Dinara Drukarova, Sebastien Dewaele, Maarten Ketels, Benoit Gob, Mieke Dobbels, Thierry de Coster, Pierre Bourrel, Jiayi Zhao, Doug Rand, Maud Brethenoux. (Dutch, French, Russian, Mandarin, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Anti-Gone

    Sundance: 2020 New Frontier Program Features Underwater VR, Chomsky A.I.

    The Sundance Institute revealed the last batch of programming for the 2020 Sundance Film Festival — minus a few last-minute additions to its feature lineup, still to come —  by announcing its New Frontier section, which this time around include not only augmented and virtual reality, but also SMS-based text messaging, biotech and artificial intelligence. [...]

  • Catherine Deneuve'Joker' premiere, 76th Venice Film

    Catherine Deneuve Out of Hospital After Stroke (Report)

    Catherine Deneuve has returned to her Paris home after more than a month in the hospital and at a rest home following a mild stroke, according to French report. The French screen icon was seen out and about by her neighbors in the Saint Germain arrondissement of Paris. Deneuve, 76, had what her family called [...]

  • Alma Harrel Honey Boy

    Hollywood Still Struggles With Parity Behind the Camera

    When Kees van Oostrum, president of the American Society of Cinematographers, was at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, he noticed that many documentaries had been shot by women. But he was also aware of the dismal number of female lensers hired for feature films. “I realized we had to do something,” he says. Popular [...]

  • Mob Town

    'Mob Town': Film Review

    “Who doesn’t love spaghetti?” asks New York State Trooper Ed Croswell (David Arquette) while on a date with single mother Natalie (Jennifer Esposito) in “Mob Town,” and the answer, according to Danny A. Abeckaser’s film, is no one. The traditional Italian dish figures prominently in this low-rent Mafia tale, which — based on an infamous [...]

  • Code 8

    'Code 8': Film Review

    Essentially a humbler, grungier indie “X-Men” without the same dependence on splashy effects, “Code 8” is a solid genre effort from director Jeff Chan. Spun off from his prior short of the same name, the crowdfunded effort is resourceful and polished on a tight budget. Its fast-paced progress has enough appeal to suggest a possible [...]

  • Cats Movie

    'Cats' Producers Respond to Twitter Trailer Backlash

    The producers of “Cats” have seen the memes and read the mean tweets that greeted the first trailer for the big screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage smash. When the initial teaser was launched this past summer, social media commentators feasted on the way that an A-list cast that includes Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, [...]

  • Carol Titleman dead

    Lucasfilm Exec Carol Titelman Dies at 73

    Carol Wikarska Titelman, director of publications during the early days of Lucasfilm, died on Dec. 7 in her New York apartment. She was 73. Titelman died following complications with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a statement released on her behalf. Popular on Variety Titelman began her career at Lucasfilm answering phones in the months before “Star [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content