‘The Artist’ Director Michel Hazanavicius Unveils Debut Animation Film in Annecy

The Most Precious of Cargos
Courtesy of Annecy Festival

Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius (“The Artist”) has unveiled his first-ever animation film project at the Annecy Intl. Animation Film Festival.

Entitled “The Most Precious of Cargos,” it is an adaptation of the eponymous best-selling book by acclaimed French playwright and children’s books author Jean-Claude Grumberg, who is co-writing the film with Hazanavicius.

Told in the form of a classic fairy tale in 2D animation, it is set during World War II, and tells the story of a poor woodcutter and his wife who live deep in the Polish forest. To the woman’s despair, the couple have no children.

One day, while foraging for food, she sees a bundle fall out of what she believes to be a cargo train crossing the forest. Inside is a baby girl who was thrown from the train by her Jewish father – whose wife no longer has enough milk to feed both his twins – in the hope of saving them both. The woodcutter’s wife decides to keep the precious cargo and raise her as her own against her husband’s wishes.

Hazanavicius boarded the project more than three years ago, but the COVID-19 pandemic brought it to a halt, allowing him to make this year’s Cannes opener “Final Cut,” in the meantime.

The director, whose own family fled the Nazis in Eastern Europe, explained how he was initially reluctant to take on the project, but said he was deeply moved when he read the book, whose author is also a long-time family friend.

“The last survivors of the Holocaust are dying, soon there will no longer be any verbal testimonies of that period in time, we are moving into history with a capital ‘H,’” said Hazanavicius.

“It is now open to fiction to tell these stories, which were sacred until now. Doing so through a fairy tale told in animation, which is the ultimate form of fiction, means taking responsibility for this entry into fiction – and it seemed like a noble venture to me.”

Faced with the question of how to tell the indescribable, the director said his aim was to give the film a classic look, that would give the impression that it has always existed. For this, he sought inspiration in many places, including early Disney movies, early 20th century Russian paintings and Japanese prints.

The Annecy crowd also got a glimpse of a film, shot in just two weeks with real actors in costumes, which the director decided to make to give the animatics team a precise idea of each scene and speed up the pre-production process.

Drawings of the main characters made by the director, who draws the storyboards for all of his films himself, were also shown at the presentation.

“Making a silent film helped me hugely,” said Hazanavicius, referring to his Oscar-winning film “The Artist.” “I storyboard all my films because this enables me to have a purely graphic vision of what they will look like. There is very little dialogue in this film, so the role of the images is all the more important as they speak in place of the dialogue. My ambition is that if you cut out the sound you still understand the film.”

The film’s makers said Thursday that the film is narrated by iconic French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, with Gérard Depardieu and Dominique Blanc (“Stand-by”) voicing the woodcutter and his wife, and Denys Podalydès (“Sorry Angel”) in the role of The Man with The Broken Face. Trintignant sadly died on Friday.

The music is by Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”).

Work on the animatics is currently underway, with production set to kick off in October this year. 3.0 Studio – formerly Prima Linea, behind Oscar-nominated animation film “The Red Turtle” – is in charge of the animation.

“The Most Precious of Cargos” is a Franco-Belgian co-production between Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Les Films du Fleuve, Patrick Sobelman and Robert Guédiguian’s Paris-based Ex Nihilo, Florence Gastaud, Riad Sattouf and Hazanavicius’ outfit Les Compagnons du Cinéma and Hazanavicius’ La Classe Américaine. Studiocanal is handling worldwide sales.

The film is scheduled for a 2024 release.

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