Animation was featured quite prominently at this year's PiFan, with Japanese works such as Gyo, Rainbow Fireflies, and Blood C: The Last Dark, not to mention some retrospectives on the Space Battleship Yamamoto series and Czech animation. Sadly, by the end of the festival the only one I was able to see was The Suicide Shop 3D, a French offering from live-action filmmaker Patrice Leconte.
It looked to be a cross between the stylings of Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville, 2003; The Illusionist, 2008) and the playfully macabre storytelling of Tim Burton. In many ways the film was a combination of those aesthetics but what it lacked was what makes those filmmakers so successful in their craft: originality and heart. Burton may have lost his edge in recent years but his style, which itself was a combination of horror, vaudevillian and campy influences, was fresh and invigorating when he burst onto the scene 30 years ago.
Leconte is a respected filmmaker, if not altogether noteworthy outside of his country. I admit that I have not seen any of his films but the strength of this film's premise and its visual potential had me excited. The story takes place in an alternate version of Paris where life is unspeakably bleak and suicide has become commonplace. One family has established itself over generations as a purveyor of guaranteed effective suicide solutions "or your money back." As the dour pall infects the city, business is booming at the suicide shop, a colorful cornucopia of poisons, nooses, swords, guns and all manner of instruments for manually inflicted deaths.
One day a third child is born to the family but there's a problem. He smiles and seems to enjoy life. His parents do their best to stamp out this unspeakable trait, not least because it's bad for business. But he grows up, along with his smile and good humor. Now a teenager, he undertakes to sabotage his parents business and bring a bit of brightness into his depressing environment.
It's a very good premise with massive potential but unfortunately Leconte is unable to do it justice. Most of the film's characters fit into the world that has been carefully brought to life with the notable exception of the main character, whose good-humor, as well as appearance and animation style, seem to belong to a different film. His happy-go-lucky eccentricity is far too twee and derails the solid, if unremarkable, groundwork that has been set in the first act.
To my surprise, as well as other audience members, the film is actually a musical, but, again, this element does not sit well with the world to which we have been introduced. Frankly, save for a select few, the musical numbers are very weak and seem carelessly thrown together. The singing is subpar and sometimes off key while the lyrics are a mess. (As it happens, I speak French).
The film, at a svelte 72 minutes, is mercifully short but this also poses a significant problem as the characters are wafer thin and the film's climax and the progressions of the character's trajectories, which occur in the third act, are maddeningly truncated.
The most obvious comparison for his film is Burton's delightful The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). One crucial difference, and perhaps why it was a far more successful endeavor, is that Skeleton Jack underwent significant change throughout that narrative. He was given a reason (through the cathartic experience of a first Christmas) to import light and joy into his own gothic and sinister community. The boy in The Suicide Shop is almost oppressively joyful from the get go and while that could have worked, at no point does his good humor waver. He's one-dimensional and never changes, which makes him a terrible lead protagonist.
The Suicide Shop, which I had been looking forward to, turned out to be my biggest disappointment of the festival. The main ingredients lacking from this production are a better fleshed-out main character and some more creative world-building. What's more, the use of 3D is completely superfluous. By no means a terrible film, it is merrily a mildly curious oddity that will swiftly be forgotten in the history of the medium.
(Review originally published during the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan) in July 2012. The film will screen at TIFF today and also on Sunday, September 16.)