Animation Movies Shorts


Director – Stéphanie Clément – 2022 – France – 11m


A nine-year-old struggles with the trauma that befalls her at her grandpa’s – nominated for Best Animated Short at the 2024 Academy Awards, VoD details below review

She’s nine (voice-over: Christa Theret), and in the Summer she goes to stay with granny and grandpa. She plays on a swing, missing mum and dad, she watches a cabbage white butterfly in the garden. The house is tidy, ordered, perhaps obsessively so. It smells of polish; the kitchen smells of bleach. Tomorrow, grandpa will take her to the lake, where he likes to fish. To get to her bedroom, she must pass the big, intimidating horn mounted at the top of the stairs, a hunting trophy from a pachyderm. In her room, she can see eyes watching her from the wood grain of the ceiling timbers. She doesn’t sleep by counting sheep; she kills monsters. As the floorboards creak outside her door, she hides in the wallpaper, in the flowers, in sleep. After all, as grandma says, what could happen?

Before the trip, she accidentally pricks a finger on one of grandpa’s fishing hooks – lures, as they call them – but grandpa kisses the cut better with the kiss that heals all things. He ties the roses to the trellis outside the house, pruning them. For the trip to the lake, he takes the stabilisers off her bike for the first time and lets her ride ahead of him. She hears the voices of children playing by the lake and handles the bodies of crushed toads in the road. No-one thought to bring her swimming costume, so she bathes in the lake in her knickers, something she’s none too happy about, but grandpa doesn’t let her out of his sight.

There’s a story that one day, a lady with a white body and hair like seaweed drowned in the lake. Like that woman’s long hair, white arms of water caress our half-submerged girl. In jarring contrast, in the dark woods where grandpa has taken her in the car to listen to the sounds of night animals, her stands behind her, telling her to keep quiet.

Back at the house, at night, she’s in bed when grandpa opens the door. Last night, she remembers in voice-over, grandpa died. Her voice-over omits the sight of the great tusk broken in two. She never understood why he cut the flowers off the roses, like the one she and granny now lay on his grave. She finally drowns the pachyderm, except that the lake isn’t big enough for that.

In the clever script by Marc Rius, much of the above is narrated by the little girl in voice-over, but not all of it – the broken tusk, the strange experience in the dark woods which is abruptly cut short by a scene end are shown as images without explanatory verbal comment. It opens with static scribbles suggesting fields with idyllic birdsong on the soundtrack, then an image of a jarring red car passing though countryside planted with Van Gogh cypresses, thoughts of the painter immediately banished by a slowly rotating roundabout in a deserted, fenced-in children’s play area.

The orderliness of the house, presumably down to granny, is conveyed in near motionless, static shots – and, outside at night, the tiniest movement of a cultivated bush near the house wall, the more obvious movement of wild reeds near the lake. In the morning, a disruption, a spillage on the tablecloth from a mug of tea, a revolt against the curated orderliness, perhaps?

When the little girl looks up the stairs, the lighting suggests a horror movie, a dreadful portent of what might happen. As she tries to sleep in her bed, and the boards creak outside in the corridor (the remarkable sound design is by Pierre-François Renouf), she gets up and lies against the wall, the patterned flowers slowly growing over her as she sinks into them and into sleep just as the drowned, white lady’s snakelike hair hands will later caress her in the water of the lake, the water which isn’t deep enough to drown the pachyderm.

Admirers of horror thrillers will detect echoes of scenes from horror classics. Presaged by an image of the little girl’s hand in her grandpa’s giant, thick-set hand, a sequence of him cutting the heads off roses is accompanied a child’s voice singing a creepy, wordless tune (the music is by Olivier Militon) that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the more suspenseful moments of a full-blown, European horror film like Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977), an Italian entry about terrible events befalling young women in a self-contained, malicious environment. The girl hides in a rose head as if to sleep: the secateurs in grandpa’s hand lops it off, denying her a safe haven.

The crushed toads recall the ones cruelly inflated to bursting point by children in The Reflecting Skin (Philip Ridley, 1990), a film in which children are taken away from the cornfield-strewn countryside by strange men driving black cars. Is there an echo here of grandpa’s trip into the night with the girl?

When the door of the girl’s bedroom is opened as she lies unable to sleep, and before she again tries to blend into the flower-papered wall, it casts a widening, diagonal wedge of light on the floor in a visual cue unmistakably ripped out of his Hollywood movie Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) in a cue Hitch himself ripped out of French shocker Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955). Director Clément makes this image her own, though, by adding colour to Clouzot and Hitchcock’s black and white: the bright wedge on the floor is now a fiery, volcanic lava orange suggesting an incendiary, uncontrolled terror rather than a cold, deathly one executed with precision.

These moments, like the vegetation in the countryside and the lake suggesting Van Gogh’s painterly brushstrokes, a very much subservient to a wider vision. There’s nothing explicit shown, but victims of child abuse tend to suppress specifics and conjure images of their own in order to deal with the trauma. A remarkable yet devastating little film that becomes all the more terrifying the more you think about it – or, for that matter, the more times you watch it.

Pachyderm is nominated for Best Animated Short at the 2024 Academy Awards. VoD details below.


The making of Pachyderm:

The following five links may all play in sequence from the first link; you may want to have the freeze-frame button ready to examine the artwork.

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Rent for £3.99 on VoD:

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