Berlin 2011 Review: LES CONTES DE LA NUIT (Tales of the Night)

rating: 4.5

One of three 3D films in the main section of the 61st Berlin Film Festival, Michel Ocelot's animated Les Contes de la Nuit (Tales of the Night) is a charming collection of six short allegorical folk tales revolving around ideas of morality and love. The stories are told at night-time by an eccentric trio who inhabit an otherwise empty (but oddly high-tech) theatre, as they use Mr. Ben-like transformation powers to put on elaborate shows - apparently seen only by a gormless owl. The 3D, whilst by no means essential to the experience, works and gives Ocelot's distinctive two dimensional look a pop-up book feel that separates the stylised, silhouetted characters from the gaudy backgrounds. The folkloric and multi-cultural nature of the tales is reminiscent of his previous films, especially Azur et Asmar with which this shares a certain educational vibe. As always the simplicity of Ocelot's animation mirrors the simplicity and economy of his storytelling, and both are deceptive. Whilst it is principally aimed at younger children, Tales of the Night doesn't speak down to its target audience and his film is, as ever, terrifically good at breaking from convention and interrogating the morality (or immorality) of traditional fairy tales. At one point the characters, when discussing which story they want to tell next, make a point of saying they are going to chance the ending and moral of a tale to make it better. The film is deeply humanist and multi-cultural, as Ocelot sets his stories in six disparate times and places which include locales as distinct as Aztec South America and Central Africa, with great attention to historical detail but also with a really refreshing understanding and love of cultural differences. This separates these films from the homogenised, culturally non-specific world of most animated movies aimed at children. The film also boasts a much more sophisticated outlook on love and relationships than most movies intended for adults. There is a deep-rooted love of basic human kindness here which reminds me of Miyazaki (among others), and yet Ocelot's films are never cute or sentimental and you get the impression he is resolutely sincere. And though his art style looks simple and even a bit cheap, the fluidity of his animation - particularly when it involves running and dancing - is at the peak of the art form. Added to that, in terms of imagination Tales of the Night is filled to the brim with ideas. I can't shake the feeling that the probable final resting place for any Michel Ocelot film is the inside of a French primary school classroom, and there is little chance of it spawning a series of straight-to-dvd sequels, a theme park ride or a Julie Taymor directed Broadway musical. But that is not to say that it lacks value and appeal all of its own. It is a likable and wholly positive movie right up there with its director's commonly acknowledged masterpiece Kirikou and the Sorceress and, as things stand, it is the best movie I've seen in the competition so far. But they won't award the Golden Bear to a 3D film... will they?
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.