French movie April and the Extraordinary World opens in Berkeley Friday

Do the French have an obsession with talking cats? Back in 2011 I reviewed The Rabbi’s Cat, a charming animated feature about a feline taking lessons in Jewish mysticism. Now comes Avril et le monde truqué (April and the Extraordinary World – though the print I previewed substituted the word ‘twisted’ for ‘extraordinary’), in which a particularly erudite kitty plays a most prominent role.

Opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 8, April and the Extraordinary World offers an alternate steampunk version of French history (with particular emphasis on the steam). Beginning in 1870, the film imagines that the Franco-Prussian War has been avoided thanks to the deft intervention of Emperor Napoleon IV, whose efforts on behalf of peace involve government control over all scientific research — and the arrest of uncooperative scientists such as Gustave Franklin (Jean Rochefort), who’s been developing something called the ‘ultimate serum.’

Franklin’s lab is destroyed in a police raid led by Inspector Pizoni (Bouli Lanners), but the quest to develop his serum continues thanks to Gustave’s son Paul (Olivier Gourmet), daughter-in-law Annette (Macha Grenon), and – most importantly – grandchild April (Marion Cotillard), whose cat Darwin (Philippe Katerine) has benefited from an unanticipated side effect of animal testing.

Seemingly orphaned by the explosion that destroyed grandpa’s laboratory, the now grown April – and the now elderly and frail Darwin — remain in hiding in Paris. Determined to complete the work Gustave began, the young woman continues to experiment with a serum she believes will grant immortality to those who ingest it. Darwin is her (now willing) subject, but the formula never seems to be quite right.

Convinced the ingredients she needs can only be acquired from a funfair sideshow, April goes on a risky outing. She’s trailed by police spy Julius (Marc-André Grondin), who’s been hired — or more specifically, blackmailed — by the dogged Pizoni, whose previous failures have seen him reduced in rank from Inspector to mere Sergeant. Julius is soon on her trail, and Pizoni begins to dream once again of law enforcement glory.

Directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci and based on a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, April and the Extraordinary World packs substantial backstory into its first 20 minutes, but settles into a more relaxed pace for the balance of its running time. Young children will be lost in the thicket of narrative, and probably shouldn’t see the film anyway due to the (apparent) deaths of several characters, some violence and blood, and a little mild profanity (the word ‘merde’ is charitably translated to ‘dang’ in the subtitles).

Filled with marvelous sights and surprising plot twists (including one that will warm the cockles of conspiracy theorist David Icke’s heart), it must be noted that the film wavers a little in the message department: should we trust in science, or embrace a radical ‘deep green’ alternative?

Nonetheless, this excellent example of traditional animation will satisfy older children and adults in equal measure – as well as cat lovers, who will be pleased that Darwin plays a key role in saving humanity.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...