Pachyderme (2022) Short Film Review

Pachyderme (2022)
Director: Stéphanie Clément
Screenwriter: Marc Rius
Starring: Christa Théret

Stéphanie Clément’s beautifully imagined Pachyderme is the 96th Academy Awards Animated Short category’s most haunting nominee, its tale of a young girl staying with her grandparents transcending its simple sequence of events to offer a richly narrated dark ghost story worth engaging with.

This is the story of a woman interacting with the darker parts of her mind when reminiscing on her time spent with her grandparents as a child. Through narration, we are told in retrospect how particular her grandfather was and how her grandmother would often comfort her when she couldn’t sleep. The sounds of the house, the creeks in the floorboards, and the patterns on the ceiling provoke perceivably threatening visions, but this isn’t a horror film of ghosts and monsters. Pachyderme is more a quietly dark piece reminiscing on the fears, anxieties and confusion of being a child, and specifically a child of abuse. It therefore feels appropriately ordinary in where it takes place and the events that occur: the girl being presented in bed, at the dinner table, at the local river, and in the nearby woods. It is the unspoken aspects of the film that provide it with a darker underbelly.

Told against the backdrop of beautiful hand-drawn-style 2D animation and infused with 3-dimensional elements that instantly draw the eye to meaningful props that evoke nostalgia and indicate themes, Pachyderme is instantaneously engaging and specific in tone. Like a children’s story book infused with traditional techniques, its landscapes are initially warm and inviting, and they remain visually interesting throughout. The mixture of techniques in the 3D style equally evoke an immediate response, the emotive character design marrying with the specifics of each location (the bed, the wall, the river water) to offer an overall presentation that is at times ethereal.

There are dark machinations at play in the universe the film presents, yet screenwriter Marc Rius and director Stéphanie Clément don’t actively tell us how to interpret what is happening in the film. We see the young girl anxiously navigate bathing topless in the river, and we see her quiver at the sounds of her nearby woods, each in the presence of her grandfather. Is she an anxious child navigating unfamiliar territory, or is there more afoot? She fears the creeks of the floorboards outside her room, she imagines the faces of animals in the ceiling, threatening her. She pretends to hide in the wallpaper. This is, of course, an allegory for abuse, the hunter grandfather being the prowling creature at the other side of her door, the wallpaper the place she escapes to. But the narration doesn’t outright tell us this, nor is there a scene awfully depicting it. A closing image of the grandparents’ elephant tusk broken in half outside of the girl’s room would indicate a series of abuse that wouldn’t last forever, but the ghosts of girls playing in the river and of various scenarios featuring otherworldly aspects would suggest that any trauma is not over. Some may see this as an exploration of the anxieties of a young girl, and there is certainly enough present to prove that perspective as a viable one, but there is no escaping the sorrow that infuses each element of the film, a perceptible damage that transcends the screen.

The story is narrated in deliciously deep tones by Christa Théret, and with all the delectable poetry you might expect from the very best of the French language. The narration evokes the same tone as was evident in Adèle Haenel’s performance in Portrait of a Lady on Fire; an almost moody, straight take on the material that elevates the haunting nature of the overall presentation.

Whilst there are certainly narrative developments and character arcs to experience in this Oscar-nominated short film, Pachyderme leaves no doubt as to how it is more of a mood piece than a straight narrative piece. Through this technique, the film encourages you to engage with truths within your own childhood that you may not have seen expressed before: the curiosity of seeing dead animals and the nerves that come with developing self-awareness, among others. Its nature as a short, and how it progresses through time and settings relatively quickly, indicate a retrospection not dissimilar to unlocking memories or dreaming – each appropriate explanations for the art style it employs.

Pachyderme is, then, an intricately constructed piece at every level of filmmaking, and a short film to be experienced. In the correct atmosphere, and when approached with an open mind, it will engage and perhaps more importantly inspire self-reflection. There are more star-studded animated shorts nominated at the Oscars in 2024, and ones with more traditional and clear storytelling methods, but Pachyderme is moving, haunting, and well worth discovering.

Score: 20/24

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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