Here Be Dragons: ‘Peur(s) du Noir’ a sometimes-terrifying French animated anthology of childhood fears


Peur(s) du Noir

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Written by Jerry Kramsky, Michel Pirus, Romain Slocombe, Blutch, Charles Burns, Pierre di Scullo
Directed by Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre di Scullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, and Richard McGuire
France, 2007

The French animated horror anthology Peur(s] Du Noir, or Fear(s) of the Dark, is all atmosphere, though it uses this to great purpose.
The film is surprisingly immersive, even as an anthology of six shorts with different animation styles, two of which are used as buffers between the other four, played in sequence. This manner of editing is key to the film’s success, giving it a fresh and cohesive feel. The overarching theme of the universality and perpetuity of childhood fear (signified by its sophomoric yet still effectively simple title) doesn’t quite reach far or deep enough, though, leaving the film kind of stranded in merely watchable territory.

The first short deals with the fear of intimacy, which plays into childhood fear. An ostracized nerd has his first real relationship, which doesn’t turn out well due to baggage he carries with him infecting their relationship. Though the baggage is physical (some spooky bugs he found in the forest as a child that have haunted him ever since), it still has allegorical significance as a remnant intruding upon his adult life that won’t allow him to grow up. This short ultimately doesn’t work, however, because of the vindication of the fear feeling too misogynistic (albeit terrifying in a paralyzing, insidious way) and the allegory being too broad. Its animation style is also probably the ugliest, though there are some beautiful compositions and uses of its monochromatic scheme at work here. It’s creepy but shallow.

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The first is probably the weakest, however, though the second is only slightly better. A young girl in Japan (who speaks French because that’s the language of the film) is bullied and haunted by a samurai in her nightmares…or did it all really happen? The samurai’s disembodied head is totally disturbing. The animation here is the most cartoonish so the issue isn’t the way the short looks; it’s mostly in the way the head floats up behind her and is only visible in a few shots before you see it directly. This gag is one of the film’s genuine highlights. Anyway, the persistent folkloric tale that haunts a specific place and the disapproval of one’s peers are tackled here, and are both very much in tune with bringing out still-resonant childhood fears more directly than the first segment. If a legend is attached to an area, doesn’t it feel like there’s a reason why he can never know due to our constant relative youth to the age of the legend? Don’t we still all have that fear of lack of acceptance from time to time? The sandwiching of the fantasy element between two possibly true stories within the dream framework, which could also be a flashback, blur the line between reality and fantasy ambiguously but is maybe ultimately slightly muddled.

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The narrative half of the two interspersed shorts, which open the film, is animated by some badass known only as Blutch. It veers off the thematic path somewhat, though it luckily gels with its fellow intercut short. It features a presumed aristocrat with four massive dogs with whom he roams the countryside, sometimes accidentally and sometimes purposefully letting them loose until one turns on him and kills him at the end. The first dog gets away and goes after a child who doesn’t have any eyes! This represents the upper class’s supposed compassion for the children, yet their policies unintentionally end up harming them. When the second dog kills a laborer, it’s clearly the will of the owner. The patriarchy seems to take a hit here too, as a woman is similarly let loose upon by the third. When the final dog kills the owner, it becomes a hopeful little piece that presents the case that hubris will be the undoing of harmful governmental and societal structures.

The second intercut piece is a woman rambling out her sociopolitical fears, but it serves the purpose of connecting the stories across borders and creeds. The dancing patterns that accompany the voiceover are key to the overall film’s atmosphere, as the short ultimately mimics a dream. Nondescript lines dance behind your eyelids as the subconscious pours itself out.

The third story is the standout. It has easily the most oppressive atmosphere of the six shorts and builds suspense to the point at which it becomes unbearable. It’s the scariest of the three, and encapsulates its themes in a story of a boy growing up in the French countryside, which is being haunted by a beast. It ratchets up the childlike sense of knowing nothing about the world, which is essentially the film’s modus operandi. The woman in the intercut voiceover segment didn’t know anything about the world either, even if she’s discussing more explicitly adult matters. Dark prevents us from understanding, so we fear it. Children are just more figuratively in the dark on superficial levels.

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The final short, in which a man is trapped in a pitch black house, ends on a note that could conceivably be an impetus for a story of childhood fear similar to the first three. The statement made here, though, is that there’s not anything to be afraid of from active beings; it’s usually just another person in a misunderstood situation. The short does, however, suggest that adulthood is no escape from the fear, which is key to how the film works. It evokes the sense of childhood through its withholding of information, dark sense of wonder, and the very fact that it’s animated. It’s like your halcyon Saturday morning cartoons turned evil.

The depth here is easy to miss but it’s all encapsulated in how Peur(s) du Noir affects you. It’s very broadly drawn but that simply allows it to hit a wider scope of people. It doesn’t aspire to be anything other than a serviceably spooky time for all, and really, what better Halloween recommendation is there than that?

— Autumn Faust




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