Marking the long-anticipated feature debut of French animator Sébastien Laudenbach, a much-awarded shorts director known for his sense of line and poetry, "The Girl Without Hands" is a minimalist but artistically complex rendering of a lesser-known Grimm Brothers tale. It's created in a striking graphic style that is light years from commercially popular toon-making, and one not usually sustained over a feature-length film. Each shimmering frame is composed of multiple layers of diverse drawing and painting techniques and washes of color combined with 2D computer animation. The delicate, pulsating brushstrokes, plus characters depicted as barely complete line drawings, thus limiting expressiveness, make it a poor fit for younger children — or anyone with a glimmer of a headache. Indeed, this is uncompromising, hand-crafted art best appreciated by teen and adult animation connoisseurs.
Unfolding in a classic three-act structure, the story centers on the eponymous girl (voiced by Anaïs Demoustier), the daughter of a miller (Olivier Broche). When a long dry spell causes the family's mill wheel to stop turning, they come close to starvation. As the desperate miller forages in the forest for food, he meets the devil (Philippe Laudenbach, the director's father), disguised as a huntsman, and his familiar, a pig. When the devil offers him riches for everything in back of his mill, the miller agrees, not realizing that his nature-loving offspring is at that moment perched in a tree, and thus part of the bargain. When the devil comes to claim his due, the maiden's purity (rendered visually through much bathing) prevents him from possessing her. In retaliation, the unsatisfied devil forces the father to chop off her hands, in what is one of the film's most primal and dramatic moments.
The second act follows the handless girl as she leaves home, is helped by a powerful river goddess (Elina Löwensöhn) and winds up married to a handsome prince (Jéremie Elkaïm), who is served by a gentle gardener (Sacha Bourdo). But when the prince answers the clarion call of war, leaving his pregnant bride behind, the devil sees a chance to try to reclaim his prize.
A joyful, proto-feminist final act sees the girl, now a mother, raising both her child and a glorious orchard in splendid isolation. Moments such as a brief lesson in toilet training typify Laudenbach's fresh take on the tale. However, one of the director's signature visuals, involving lines and images pinwheeling with a whooshing sound, can't help but evoke commercial advertisements in which some substance returns to a bottle.
The vibrant, Fauvist color-washes and overlays represent the film's most impressive element, recalling the cut-outs of Henri Matisse or the decorative work of Raoul Dufy. The sound effects, including slurping, gasping, and burbling or rushing water, are over-determined, but the spare, tranquil score is just right.
"The Girl without Hands" — 3 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:16
Opens: Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., www.siskelfilmcenter.org. In French with English subtitles.