I Can Only Preach to the Converted
“I’m scared of having a hard time proving the superiority of western civilization to an Afghan villager watching TV with me.”
Of the many frightening possibilities raised in Fear(s) of the Dark (Peur[s] du noir), this one seems especially abstract and, frankly, odd. An anthology of beautifully rendered animated shorts, the film includes work by six French graphic artists, each segment disturbing in its own way. Recurring snippets feature Pierre Di Sciullo’s black-and-white shapes, mutating under Nicole Garcia’s voiceover. The imaginary encounter with the villager resonates: not only is the very concept of “civilization” thrown into question, but so too is any aim to “explain,” assumptions about the “villager,” related distinctions between selves and others. The fear described here is not visceral or familiar, but it is incisive. What if civilization is inexplicable? And what if that doesn’t matter?
Immediately following, the voice provides a more concrete terror: “I’m scared of being invited one day at the last minute, by friends of friends, to dine on long plump white worms, wriggling on a plate.” Suggesting the ways that fears can change over a lifetime, this image calls up kids touring a haunted house on Halloween, or maybe a scene laid out by the FX crew on a Night on Elm Street set—primitive and unpleasant, like “grilled flying grasshoppers or snake roasted in its gravy.” Suggesting the ways that fears can change over a lifetime, this image calls up kids touring a haunted house on Halloween, or maybe a scene laid out by the FX crew on a Night on Elm Street set, primitive and unpleasant, like “grilled flying grasshoppers or snake roasted in its gravy.”
The film goes on to show how these fears—the loss of intellectual bearings and the gross physical sensation—are not so opposite as they sound. A recurring vignette by Blutch (a.k.a. Christian Hincker) shows an old, hook-nosed man in French Revolutionary buckle shoes and knickers walking dogs. They are sketched in dark, fast strokes, their fur sharp and their snarling incessant. Each time the man appears in the film, he sets his beasts onto a target—a child alone in a far-stretching wilderness, a crew of laborers, a woman dancer. As the pack is reduced in number (each scene ends as a dog tears into a victim, screaming, moaning, horrified), the dog-walker’s satisfaction is revealed in ghastly close-ups. If the political case here is obvious—a designated dominant class member assails and abuses a series of “others”—the animation is nonetheless effective.
Equally creepy is Charles Burns’ nerdy-boy nightmare, in which lonely Eric (voiced by the late Guillaume Depardieu) finds solace in his “experiments,” jars of bugs he keeps in his bedroom. When one of these creatures escapes one night, apparently into his bed, Eric is henceforth infected, his room suffused with clacking insecty noises and deep, immersive shadows. The bug returns when, ostensible years later, Eric meets fellow university student Laura. Seemingly perfect, she declares her desire early and often, thrilled by the romantic movie they see on their first date: “Real life should be like that,” she asserts, though the leading man has told the woman, “You’re mine, all mine.” You know this is trouble, but probably don’t know exactly what kind, as Laura moves in with Eric, drops her classes, and insists that he service her each night in bed. She becomes, as he puts it, “stronger, more muscular,” cutting her hair short like a boy’s and eventually binding his arms and legs so he is immobilized, hers alone.
Marie Caillou’s story of Sumako offers more anime-like illustration, as the child faces the horrors of a first day at school, confronted by cliques and bullies and gruesome legends, specifically, that of the decapitated Samurai Hajime. Each time she appears to near the end of her ordeal—chased by her classmates transformed in snakes and spiders—she wakes in a hospital room, a doctor with spiky hair looming over her, humungous needle in hand. “You have to see the dream through to the end,” he says, “if you want to be cured.” Dropped into Sumako’s nightmare midway, it’s hard to tell which is the waking part and which is not, as each shapes the other and both are equally, if differently, lurid and distressing.
New York artist Richard McGuire’s segment—a man caught inside a haunted house—brings Fear(s) of the Dark to an aptly eerie close, simultaneously theoretical and corporeal. Framed in narrow doorways, afraid of noises in the bathroom, peeping out windows onto spindly trees, the man is thrown into something like a panic as he looks over a photo album—shots of people spinning and receding, a legacy both obscure and desperately meaningful, shots with faces ripped or cut out. Disconnected, battered, increasingly lost in a space he should know, the man can’t find his way out.
Just before, Garcia’s voiceover offers a brief, last rumination: “I’m scared of looking down on people who are different,” she says, “As I can’t accept myself as I am, that’s a problem. People who are like me, I find depressing. And that gives me a bad self-worth. I’m scared of being irredeemably bourgeois. I can’t accept that. How did I get that into my head?” Again and again, the movie indicates that fears get into your head by many means. Stories are everywhere.