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Lucas Testro [Film Festival 08.13.12] musical animation comedy

Patrice Laconte's twisted animated feature The Suicide Shop promises delights for those seeking something cheeky and dark, but after a strong opening its clever concept and beautiful animation is quickly let down by some very messy storytelling.

Times are tough in the dark, rainy city and suicide rates are up, which means business is booming for the Tuvanche family. They run The Suicide Shop. Here, those at the end of their rope can find everything they need to shuffle off this mortal coil in style - from poisons and seppuku swords to concrete blocks attached to chains for those favouring the river as their final resting place. Everything's great until Mrs Tuvanche gives birth to the their third child, Alain - and he's a giggling bundle of joy. The family is appalled. Tuvanches don't smile, mother insists, a claim backed up by one look at the two perpetually glum elder Tuvanche children. Will the family business be jeopardised by its cheery new addition?

First, for those who haven't already gathered as much from the above synopsis, let me be clear The Suicide Shop is definitely not a kids film. In addition to several quite graphic depictions of Tuvanche customers meeting their maker (often very clever, funny and even perversely pretty), it features some nudity and very mild swearing. Young Alain also seems to have a distinctly romantic affection for his sister, which the film presents without any comment. Perhaps it's a cultural thing. (I'm joking, I'm joking, I love the French.)

The animation is beautiful, with a hand-drawn cut-out feel to it - think the South Park look, but infinitely more refined and artful in execution. The grain of paper is even textured in, giving a beautiful tactile sensibility. It really feels like something a craftsman has toiled and sweat over. Particular highlights are two dream sequences: one in which the city contorts itself into distorted shapes reminiscent of Dali and Magritte, and another breathtaking sequence during a psychiatrist appointment which told entirely through dramatically stark, morphing Rorschach inkblots.

The problem, though, is that the story itself is completely muddled.

Mr and Mrs Tuvanche are upset by Alain being cheery, but they themselves are consistently cheery to customers throughout the film.

Both parents independently become wracked with guilt about their jobs as death-dealers, a huge character change without any clear reason, but then this is just as quickly forgotten, as the dad sets about apparently trying to kill Alain by encouraging him to start smoking - a plotline which is itself also immediately abandoned.

Meanwhile Alain and his friends have developed a plan to end suicides - by being cheery and amusing, I think? It was never completely clear, and never seems followed through, with Alain instead implementing various unrelated and half-hearted strategies that bring about some unmotivated changes of heart in various family members that soon have them singing at us (and by this point it does feel like they're singing "at" us rather than "to" us) about how smiling is great.

After the edginess of the opening, it all suddenly seems a little Christian rock.

Of course, one of the drawbacks of watching a subtitled musical (The Suicide Shop is a French/Belgian/Canadian co-production) is that, to make the translated lyrics rhyme, the words often get twisted into quite awkward unlyrical turns of phrase, which distract you from their actual meaning. And since most major turning points in a musical occur in the songs, it's possible something was lost in translation here at exactly the most important story moments.

Regardless, the end result is a somewhat empty and preachy experience. With such a beautiful look and a smart conceit, it's a great shame The Suicide Shop couldn't manage a more satisfying story to go with it.

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