Film Review: The Girl Without Hands

Visually innovative fairytale adaptation should appeal to fans of experimental animation.
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French filmmaker Sébastien Laudenbach tackles one of the Brothers Grimm’s lesser-known fairytales with The Girl Without Hands. The film, Laudenbach’s first (he has some shorts to his name), is being distributed stateside by Gkids, which has crafted quite the successful business model out of promoting international animation boasting elements that you’re unlikely to find in more studio-driven fare. Here we have: Subtitles! Nudity! Death! Threats of sexual assault by a family member! Yes, The Girl Without Hands is about what you expect an animated French adaptation of a Brothers Grimm fairytale to be.

That’s not meant dismissively—The Girl without Hands is a bold, powerful film, albeit one a bit too abstract and with subject matter a bit too risqué to propel it outside the art-house set. That’s OK, though, as The Girl Without Hands is unabashedly artistic.

Anaïs Demoustier voices our unnamed lead, credited as “La jeune fille,” a miller’s daughter whose greedy father (Olivier Broche) accidentally sells her to the Devil (Philippe Laudenbach) in exchange for easy riches. The girl, however, is too pure for the Devil to take. Over time, circumstances have her lose her hands and gain a husband, in the form of a kindhearted prince (Jérémie Elkaïm). But the Devil still lurks, hoping to possess his young prize. Oh, and someone is eaten by dogs.

Rather than utilize a more traditional, straightforward drawing style, Laudenbach opts for a more impressionistic approach that layers splashes and stripes of color—each color a different layer—atop each other, characters and choice bits of landscape suspended against a frequently single-color background. It’s not a visual approach that will appeal to most children…but hey, most children probably won’t want to watch a film where a girl’s father chops her hands off, anyway. The simple style renders the film’s more emotional moments even more powerful, the Devil in particular cutting a particularly creepy figure. Also of note is Olivier Mellano’s delicate, evocative score.

The Girl Without Hands clocks in at a slight 76 minutes, and you wouldn’t want it to be much longer; the story feels a bit disjointed, with each of three acts brought together by the thinnest of connective tissue. Blame ol’ Jacob and Wilhelm, if you want. Fairytales tend to have fairly simple stories and characters—it’s one of the reasons they stand the test of time so well—and Laudenbach, who also wrote the script, doesn’t do much to beef this one up for its film debut. As a result, The Girl Without Hands falls short of being a must-see member of the fairytale cinematic canon. But it’s still well-crafted and intermittently effective. Those who like to keep up with the artsy edges of the animation space should enjoy it.

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