The Fractured World
By Jonah Jeng

The Girl Without Hands
Dir. Sébastien Laudenbach, France, GKIDS

There are few films to which Sébastien Laudenbach’s The Girl Without Hands can be compared, but one might be Isao Takahata’s 2013 The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, another 21st-century, hand-drawn-animated adaptation of a popular folk tale. In Takahata’s film, there is a scene in which the title character flees an unwelcome banquet in a fit of desperation. As she flits past a lake and through a forest, the world around her seems to collapse into her frenzy, lines and shapes all but losing their concrete forms to become abstract signifiers of movement. Her own figure narrows into a blur of color, speeding across the nocturnal landscape less as a girl than as a visual embodiment of both the idea of flight and the feeling of panic.

Now, imagine an entire film emanating this level of kinetic energy, and you’d have a pretty accurate sense of The Girl Without Hands, which is based on the Grimms’ fairy tale of the same name about a young girl’s escape from the devil after her father sells her for gold. Animated entirely by Laudenbach himself, the film seems to be in motion even on the rare occasion where it’s standing completely still. Laudenbach shows us trees, animals, houses, tools, and people, but all are drawn in an evocatively slapdash style, such that most objects look only half-finished and the director’s brushstrokes remain acutely visible. This incomplete quality lends the images a felt sense of facture, and, as a result, of unceasing activity. Virtually every frame looks like it’s perpetually in the process of either becoming or disintegrating, an effect that unsurprisingly intensifies when the film is in actual, animated motion. Sometimes, objects or people flash onto the screen as if conjured from thin air. At other moments, characters who had at first been drawn with most of their human form intact dive into performing a physical task, at which point their human likeness becomes abstracted to the bare minimum for legible action: a pair of hands, a set of eyes, the pleats on the dress of a dancing girl.

Amidst this already breathtaking aesthetic of motion, Laudenbach tosses in luminescent splashes of color, imbuing what might have otherwise been a string of mundane settings—fields, forests, and nondescript rural abodes—with an otherworldly aura. At times, the sky is a boiling red, at others, gentle lavender. During nighttime scenes, shrubbery pulses purple as if drenched in glow-in-the-dark ink, and the arrangement of the plants evokes deep-sea coral. It’s all terrifically surreal, and the film’s story reinforces that impression with an abundance of magical realism and a narrative built less on thematic arcs than an episodic, and-then-this-happened rhythm. One doesn’t merely watch The Girl Without Hands but glide through it, one entrancing scene at a time, as if in a dream.

Actually, “nightmare” might be more appropriate, since Laudenbach’s fable is far from your standard bedtime story. It’s a full-tilt descent into a brutal, morally ravaged world of the sort that Guillermo del Toro might dream up, where kingdoms war, fathers betray daughters, and blood flows freely. Within this fraught context, the film’s visual kinesis has the additional effect of expressing extremes of violence and emotion. One of the most powerful scenes occurs early, when the girl’s father, ready to hand his reluctant daughter over to the devil, shouts at her to come down from a tree and, when she doesn’t, takes an axe to it. Throughout these agonizing few seconds, the girl is rendered as a mass of agitated black lines, vibrating like a cluster of charcoal-colored electricity, expanding, contracting, and seemingly on the verge of total bodily dissipation. In this moment, we are seeing a visualization of what she’s feeling—the implosive/explosive sensation of the world you knew collapsing around you.

As lovely as the animation is, The Girl Without Hands is also remarkable for the extent to which it empathizes with its heroine, who spends the entire movie trying to get her bearings within a world of men—her father, the devil, the prince who, though good-hearted, is ultimately of little help in her time of crisis. Attention is paid not only to the hardships buffeting her but also to the fact that it is a woman who is braving these trials. The film’s interest in female experience manifests most potently in the way it extends its evident fascination with the natural world—shots of meadows, forests, and rivers abound—to the human body, and, specifically, the female body. Womanhood pervades The Girl Without Hands, from the various shots of the heroine in the nude—images not so much prurient as matter-of-fact—to the blood-speckled bedsheet after she has sex for the first time to the symbolic opening of a crimson curtain as she is giving birth. Following this period of labor, the girl discovers that she’s started lactating, and the revelation is shown with a refreshing frankness—as mother’s milk flows, peals of laughter point to the joys of nurturing.

Shying away from exoticism and eroticism, the film attends closely and poignantly to this character’s agonies, ecstasies, and everything in between. In this respect, also, The Girl Without Hands is like Princess Kaguya. While both register as progressive films for our modern moment, their feminist visions ironically draw from myths of yore and use animation to articulate human truths that their live-action counterparts repeatedly fail to grasp. With art, distortion is often necessary for clear vision, and in the case of The Girl Without Hands, the utmost stylization leads to the sharpest clarity.