[Over the next few days we’ll be looking at some of the films from Rendez Vous with French Cinema 2013, an annual showcase of contemporary and classic French films running from February 28th to March 10th. The screenings will take place at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, the IFC Center, and BAMcinématek. For tickets and more information, go here or visit rendezvouswithfrenchcinema.com.]
There have been a few reviews for The Suicide Shop that have wondered who the audience for the film is. I think this question has less to do with the content and more to do with the stigma surrounding animation: it’s a cartoon so it must be kid’s stuff. On top of that, it’s also a musical and adapted from a French comic book, so that just piles onto the stigma that’s already there.
But The Suicide Shop is not something for little children. People kill themselves left and right because living is too difficult and too painful. There’s subtle nudity in a scene that’s both a little heartwarming and a little creepy. There’s also, like any feel-good movie, some attempted infanticide. The existential malaise, the veiled sensuality, and the pitch-black comedy are all very French, and most kids won’t get it.
So to answer who The Suicide Shop is for, I’d say it’s for people who are into The Nightmare Before Christmas and who get the humor of Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies. It’s animation that skews older because understanding the comedy of death is something you develop when you’re older.
Death to the stigma.
The Suicide Shop (Le magasin des suicides)
Director: Patrice Leconte
Release Date: TBD
The world of The Suicide Shop is one of cold, gray drudgery. Long-faced people crowd the rainy streets. We watch a weary pigeon swoop around the city’s uninspired utilitarian architecture, dodging dozens of jumpers from tall buildings. Eventually, the pigeon itself succumbs to its own depression. But there’s an odd layer of bureaucratic farce to all this death. Just like in real life, if you attempt to kill yourself, you can receive a citation and have to pay a fine. The cops show up a few times in the film to stuff tickets into the mouths of the recently deceased, leaving them where they lay as they drive off.
That’s where the Suicide Shop fits into the story. Want to avoid a fine and make sure you do the job right? Then head to the dark alley and enter that well-lit, cute-looking boutique. The store’s been run by the Tuvache family for a few generations, and we learn about how great it is in song. “Vivre suicide” the family rejoices (rough translation: “long live suicide”), or at least it’s the closest they come to rejoicing. Enthuse is more like it, but not a happy kind of enthusing. The Tuvaches don’t enjoy life and rarely smile. Anything jovial they say may ruin the sale of poison, a noose, a razor blade, or a poisonous snake. It takes the depressed to help depressives kill themselves.
The Tuvaches are like the Addams Family on downers. Three of the family members are named after famous suicides. The two Tuvache children are named after Vincent van Gogh and Marilyn Monroe, and the Tuvache patriarch is named after Yukio Mishima, the great Japanese novelist who killed himself in 1970 by committing seppukku after a failed government coup. The world gets upended for the family with the birth of a son named Alain. Rather than hating life, Alain loves living. He’s a happy child who hums and skips and throws paper airplanes. Alain’s parents are afraid their son will ruin the family business, but as he gets older, that’s precisely what he wants.
The Suicide Shop is Patrice Leconte’s (The Man on a Train, Ridicule) first attempt at directing animation, though the animation is oddly flat. That’s part of a choice on his part, however, and it works in a charming way. Rather than having a traditional hand-drawn look or the gloss of CG, The Suicide Shop is more like watching something that’s part flash and part paper puppet show. There are very clear foregrounds and backgrounds in each frame, and the puppet Tuvaches zip through them, often occupying the same middle plane(s) in each shot. Only occasionally will you get a sense of full depth in a frame. Watching The Suicide Shop in 3D adds to the 2D puppet effect. It’s almost like watching an animated pop-up book in that regard, and it’s quaint. Like most films, the 3D doesn’t enhance the story, but it doesn’t detract from The Suicide Shop either.
Leconte’s film wouldn’t work if it didn’t embrace the gallows humor. In addition to the suicide tickets, Mishima only sells his customers a single bullet. “You only need one if you do it right,” he says. The film injects dark material with moments of levity because the story is more about enjoying life than about wanting to die. I think sometimes it takes those dark hours of the soul to make you realize why life is worth living. Alain Tuvache experiences these dark hours only dimly, and only because everyone else around him is so depressed and can’t see how beautiful it is to live. When Alain tells his sister she’s beautiful, she runs off crying and insists that she’s ugly; the rest of the family is also appalled at Alain’s tactlessly polite behavior.
Alain and his friends seem the only change agents in this sickly little world. At one point Alain even sings (if I remember the translated lyric right) “death to suicide” or “death to death.” All smiles, he rallies his friends in an act of life-affirming revolution/sabotage.
Just when it seems like the story’s winding down, it goes on an extra absurd beat, and all the better. In some ways The Suicide Shop is too short even though it’s thoroughly entertaining. As gray and depressing as its reality is, I wanted to linger in the shop and streets a little longer, and especially learn more about Vincent Tuvache, the teenage artist who draws gothy skulls, landscapes, and landscapes that incorporate gothy skulls.
But it’s not the briskness of the storytelling that’s the weak link in The Suicide Shop. It’s the music. The first song that introduces us to the Tuvache family and their store is fun — a mix of gloom and goofiness reminiscent of Danny Elfman. But the rest of the songs blend together, and there are no memorable melodies. It’s not bad music by any means, but it lacks a sense of personality. One lyric later in the movie stands out, however:
Life is a plate of diarrhea served with a good Bordeaux.
It’s better than Forrest Gump‘s “Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.” (The X-Files‘s riff on that is great, by the way — “Life is like a box of chocolates: a cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that nobody ever asks for. Unreturnable, because all you get back is another box of chocolates.”) I think the silliness of the diarrhea and wine analogy exemplifies the best qualities of The Suicide Shop and its underlying message, which is the stuff of old school French existentialism: life can be hard and it can wear you down; it can be lonely and miserable, too, but these feelings will end, even if just briefly. After you clean your plate, at least you can look forward to something that’ll cleanse your palate and make life worth living.
Death to death.
[The Suicide Shop will screen will screen at the IFC Center on Thursday, March 7th and at the Walter Reade Theater on Friday, March 8th and Saturday, March 9th.]