The Girl Without Hands (with hands)

Over the past few years distributor Gkids has brought some outstanding animated features to American screens, including A Town Called Panic, April and the Extraordinary World, and The Rabbi’s Cat. I was a little less enthusiastic about My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, but GKids has an enviable record — they’ve released nine Oscar-nominated films in the last six years.

In other words, they know their onions – and I’d wager that, once Academy voters cast their peepers on La jeune fille sans mains (The Girl Without Hands), that record is likely to improve to ten in seven. Opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Friday, Sept. 15 (no East Bay dates are currently scheduled) it’s a timeless, beautifully told story that will appeal to older children and adults in equal measure.

Based on Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s fairy tale ‘Das Mädchen ohne Hände’, director Sébastien Laudenbach’s film uses a unique mixture of line animation and impressionistic oil painting. Relying on a bold and unusual color scheme (primarily deep reds, greens, yellows, and purples), The Girl Without Hands appears deceptively simple – there are many frames in which little or nothing happens – but is surely the result of painstaking labor.

In accord with its genesis, Laudenbach’s film has a rather grim tale to relate. A miller and his family live in rural poverty, surviving on the apples grown behind their house and the water that flows in front. When drought strikes, their already tenuous circumstances worsen considerably.

Salvation seems at hand when an elderly stranger makes the miller an offer he can’t refuse: in exchange for “what’s behind your mill”, he will give the family wealth sufficient for the rest of their lives. A deal is struck, but the miller has forgotten that his daughter enjoys reclining in the apple tree’s broad branches.

A deal is a deal, though, and once the shape-shifting villain – likely the Devil himself – fulfills his end of the bargain he returns to claim his prize. Balking at the girl’s cleanliness, the Evil One demands she stop bathing; eager to cooperate, the miller chops off her hands. Thanks, Dad!

The unhappy lass flees and meets a handsome prince, who promptly takes her in, equips her with a pair of solid gold hands (which, as it turns out, are not particularly useful), and pops a bun in her oven before departing for battle. The Devil, meanwhile, remains on her trail in the form of a wicked red-eyed pig, postponing any happy endings.

In addition to its gorgeous animation, The Girl Without Hands benefits from a noteworthy score by Olivier Messano. Reflecting the influences of Pascal Comelade and The Durutti Column with a pinch of Toru Takemitsu, Messano’s composition is minimal but effective, blending melodic electric guitar tones with dissonant percussion. It’s perfect.

It must be said that this is not a film for small children: in addition to its somewhat abstract animation, The Girl Without Hands features urination, defecation, full frontal nudity, and (of course) hand chopping that might be difficult to explain to the little ones. Everyone else will be fine.

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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...