Director – Theodore Ushev – 2019 – Canada – 27m
From the Annecy 2020 Online Animation Festival.
Available to watch on Amazon here.
Voice-over narration by Rossif Sutherland with the occasional line echoed by Donald Sutherland (or Xavier Dolan with Manuel Tadros in the French language version) accompanies extraordinary serial images. The verbals are adapted from the novel by Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov and with echoes of reincarnation describe universal human and occasional other animal form experience of life. The opening minute or so (see the trailer) describes a person born in 1944 sheltering from English planes and bombing raids, a person born in the Bulgaria of 1968 who remembers the Prague Spring, a fruit fly who lives and dies in a day and the end of the dinosaurs.
This would probably be mesmerising were it just a radio broadcast or a sound file with the actors’ voices and sound effects, but Ushev accompanies his soundtrack with the most incredible images. Partly it’s the arresting content of the visuals he creates here and partly the technique used to realise them. A teenage boy falling in love with a circus acrobat girl who works days at a fairground shooting gallery. The death of an ageing relative associated forever with a game of tin soldiers. The September 23 1938 burial of objects in a casket “not to be opened for five thousand years”.
A series of collections – plastic soldiers, commemorative matchboxes, badges, Western movie photos, bubblegum wrappers and cards from them – contrast with the suitcase and empty room of a newly arrived immigrant to Montreal. A shop called Bucharesti that specialises in Romanian produce, trading in immigrant nostalgia. 12 seconds to put on a gas mask. An airport departure board where all flight destinations are ‘Home’ and all of them are first delayed then cancelled.
All of this is criss-crossed by train journeys with window seats, parental punishment or military solitary confinement in dark rooms and, perhaps most significantly, the Greek myth of Theseus, the Minotaur and Ariadne. I’m unwinding my thread through Ariadne’s labyrinth, says our narrator. The film is itself a veritable labyrinth, constantly circling back on itself unable to find a way out, closing with descriptions of death similar to those of birth with which it started.
All of this is rendered with the most extraordinary technique called encaustic-painting or hot-wax painting. Heated beeswax and added colour pigments are applied to a surface such as wood or canvas. This ancient technique has been used in art as diverse as Egyptian mummy paintings and Jasper Johns’ canvases. The effect is of watching a moving painting, but one so beautifully rendered that any frame pulled at random from the film would be effective as a stand alone painting in and of itself.
Put those frames back together and into motion and the effect is never less than spellbinding. Landscapes morph as they pass train carriage windows, a hearth fire crackles heavily for two innocent young lovers, the produce on the Bucharesti shop shelves pulsate in and out of existence. And in a corridor somewhere in the labyrinth, a man enters through a door and walks towards us, the corridor becoming a void behind him.
Half an hour is a long time for a short, but so encompassing is the breadth of material covered in The Physics Of Sorrow, so deep the well of the rootless psyche it plumbs and so engrossing the pace shifting from one time period to another then one country or continent to another then to the overall dislocation of the international immigrant experience that that length scarcely seems to matter. It’s a vision at once broad and sad put on the screen in a thoroughly appropriate, visually unforgettable technical style.
The Physics of Sorrow plays in the Annecy Animation Festival which is taking place in a special online edition this year. Here’s the trailer:
Here’s the technique:
Available to watch on Amazon here.
Annecy Animation Festival special online edition:
Monday, June 15th to Tuesday, June 30th.