Fantastic Fest Review: Stopmotion
The artist subsumed by her art in chilling increments
By Richard Whittaker,
11:20AM, Thu. Sep. 28, 2023
Biblical lore holds that God took clay and gave it life. That's the art of stop-motion animation, too: taking immobile matter and giving it the semblance of independence. But in Stopmotion, the debut feature of BAFTA-nominated animator Robert Morgan, it is the artist who lacks real free will.
Fantastic Fest audiences are probably aware of Morgan's disturbing visions from shorts like "Bobby Yeah" and "D Is for Deloused," his contribution to horror anthology The ABCs of Death. But here he breaks expectations and medium with his live-action feature debut. However, the subject – the uncanny nature of stop-motion – remains the same.
Aisling Franciosi (The Nightingale, The Last Voyage of the Demeter) plays Ella, a talented stop-motion artist who is merely the tool of her mother (Stella Gonet), a legend of the medium whose hands have failed her but whose vision lives on. She cannot undertake the painstaking, now painful, task of moving armatures through an eighth of a second of motion, but her daughter's nimble fingers are nothing but an extension of her whims. Ella's dreams of undertaking her own project are constantly deferred until a combination of circumstances – an accident, a job offer, and the arrival of a precocious and overly friendly young child neighbor (Caoilinn Springall) – make its creation a possibility.
However, as has been told in countless stories, the act of completing a work of art often comes at great cost, especially when the vision is as dark and twisted as the fairytale menace that Ella wants to bring to fruition.
"Artist consumed by their art" is a whole subgenre of horror, and in many ways Stopmotion adheres to its clearly set rules of mental collapse and the blur between fiction and reality. But, unlike many such creative protagonists, it often seems that Ella knows exactly what is happening (there's a bleak joke about one of the signs of madness that feels like the psychic equivalent of hearing a bone snap). But then Morgan's theme is powerlessness, as expressed through her passivity, and so Ella's inevitable and bloody collapse is given a rich, tragic poignancy.
And just because it's a familiar tale, doesn't impact the strength of the retelling. Morgan rightly took home the Fantastic Fest 2023 jury award for best director for his warping of the barrier between Ella's everyday life, where she has no control, and the nightmarish realm at her fingertips, where she remains subject to psychological forces that threaten to consume her. It's chilling and tragic in equal measures.
Fantastic Fest Screening
Thu., Sept. 28, 8:10pm