TRIGGER WARNING: PLEASE NOTE THIS PIECE IS ABOUT SUICIDE IN THE MOVIES.
Le magasin des suicides, Patrice Leconte’s first animated film, is adapted from a cult novel by Jean Teulé (which has also been turned, like many a cult French novel, into a BD). It’s set in a nameless city – too many high-rise buildings for it to be Paris, so I’m guessing this burg is fictional – so grim and depressing that its inhabitants are constantly trying to shuffle off their mortal coils. Catering to this clientèle is the shop of the Tuvache family, all of whom are named after celebrated suicides – Mishima (a dead ringer for Gomez Addams), Lucrèce and their lugubrious children, Marilyn and Vincent. The shop sells poison, rope, guns, blades, venomous animals – everything a potential suicide might need pour mettre fin à ses jours – to put an end to their days.
Into this household is born Alan (named after Alan Turing, according to Teulé’s book) who immediately shows himself to be the white sheep of the family by smiling, laughing and generally being jolly. This has the damaging effect of not so much driving away customers but of cheering them up, which amounts to the same thing. The story mostly deals with Alan’s attempts to subvert the family business. His tactics include presenting his sister Marilyn with a chiffon scarf, and then, with his friends, spying on her as she dances naked with it in her bedroom (which to my mind is more like creepy Peeping Tom conduct than cute little bro mischief) and bombarding the shop with deafening techno from a car radio, the volume turned up so loud it has the effect of an earthquake on the frangible merchandise.
Such behaviour did little to endear Alan to me, making me ambivalent about the outcome of the story. Whereas normally I would automatically side with the mutineer against the forces of repression, this time, possibly for the first time in my life, I found myself not wanting to see the subversive come out on top. It seemed to me that it was Alan who was trying to coax his family back to the more conventional path, and they who were rebelling – not against the predominantly gloomy world within the film, but against the determinedly upbeat hug-oriented world of cinema in general. I didn’t so much want to see people die, as for the Tuvaches to be able to go on selling their ropes, blades, guns and poisons, and refusing point-blank to smile as they did so.
On the other hand, I’m not sure I can agree with the verdict of Brussels listings magazine Agenda, which declared Le magasin des suicides, “Trop gentille” – too soft. Eighty-five minutes of defenestration, poisoning, pedestrians deliberately walking in front of fast-moving motor vehicles, minors smoking cigarettes, attempted filicide and an almost fetishistic attention to the accoutrements of suicide left me wondering what kind of “hard” Agenda would like to have seen. Perhaps an ironic downbeat ending, like the one in Jean Teulé’s original novel? As it is, the ending of the film is ironic yet upbeat, and I can see why they changed it. An animated film about suicide is surely a tough enough sell as it is.
There’s plenty of macabre animation – The Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, Paranorman are just three that spring to mind – but they invariably come with endings that leave us in no doubt that all is right with their respective worlds. The Corpse Bride has a bittersweet ending, but nevertheless reestablishes the natural order of things in favour of the living. (Plague Dogs, on the other hand, is a total downer, but that’s anthropomorphised tragic realism rather than ghoulish fantasy, and probably should be kept out of reach of children, unless you want them severely traumatised. Hell, it traumatised me when I saw it earlier this year.)
Le magasin des suicides doesn’t seem aimed specifically at children, but is reminiscent of goth fantasies such as Emily the Strange, and I suspect children and adolescents will revel in its ghoulishness more than their parents – unless we’re talking about parents with a ghoulish streak (like me and most of the grown-ups I know). I don’t think it’s the place of film-makers to assume a parental role and worry about the risk of children taking their work too seriously, but all the same, I can understand why it might not be a good idea to have suicide win, as it were, at the end.
I was also surprised – since Agenda failed to mention it – that Le magasin des suicides turned out to be a musical. Mostly this seems an excuse for amusing semi-psychedelic montages – see, for example, the Chanson des Tuvaches, which introduces the family and their shop:
As you can see, the visual style is very different from the sort of animation we’re used to seeing from Pixar and DreamWorks. It’s flat and sketchy, more like Sylvain Chomet’s Les triplettes de Belleville, using similar stylisation of the human physiognomy, but with a recurring dark circle around the eyes motif to emphasise the unhealthiness of this morbid bent. It’s also a long way from the “ligne claire” style of Tintin and other classic BD. The cityscapes are dull and grey, a deliberate contrast to the interior of the Tuvache shop, which gleams with jewel-like colours and warm reflections, like a cave full of treasure. The instruments of death sold by Le magasin des suicides are so very beguiling.
Or maybe – just maybe – it’s because I miss lovely family-run shops like this – all those haberdasheries, ironmongers, tea and coffee emporia of yore, full of little drawers and glass bottles and archaic filing systems and wooden stepladders. Who cares if the Tuvaches are selling death? At least they’re doing it with the personal touch.
Le magasin des suicides isn’t the best animated film I’ve seen about suicide – in fact, I don’t think it’s about suicide per se so much as rebelling against your family and looking on the bright side of life. No bad thing, but if you’re looking for an animated film which takes suicide seriously and lays out, with delicacy but devastating emotional logic, all the reasons why you shouldn’t kill yourself, try Keiichi Hara’s Karafu (Colorful), an anime in which the spirit of a young suicide is given a second chance and allowed to inhabit the body of a 14-year-old schoolboy, with results are troubling, thought-provoking and profoundly moving.
EIGHT MOVIE SUICIDES THAT HAVE STUCK IN MY HEAD
Here are Eight Movie Suicides that have stuck in my head. There will, obviously, be SPOILERS here. I have left out some obvious examples, including some films that are basically structured around suicide, such as Le feu follet, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Mulholland Drive and A Single Man. I have also left out the utterly daft suicide (which I’m afraid made me hoot with laughter) in Seven Pounds, the prettily photographed ones in The Virgin Suicides, the grotesque one in Se7en, the wickedly funny one at the start of The Ninth Gate, the hilarious fake ones in Harold and Maude and Ginger Snaps, and a couple of very depressing ones in films by Robert Bresson.
The Seventh Victim (1943)
Twenty-five years before Rosemary’s Baby, legendary RKO producer Val Lewton and director Mark Robson took a story about New York devil-worshippers and turned it into a B-movie masterpiece. You’ve had a bad day, you open your door, et voilà! a noose. And then, sometimes, a sound effect is all you need. That and one of John Donne’s holy sonnets… “I run to death, and death meets me as fast, And all my pleasures are like yesterday…”
Pierrot le fou (1965)
“Après tout, je suis idiot… Merde, merde… Mais mo….”
The Omen (1976)
“Look at me Damien – it’s all for you!”
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
“Seven six two millimeter. Full metal jacket.”
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Jodhi May’s wordless leap into the void (1992) speaks volumes. See also Jeanette Nolan’s suicide in Orson Welles’s Macbeth (1948) and the suicide of Princess Elizabeth at the start of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s terrifying film begins with a suicide. And then there’s this scene… Look behind you.
Suicide Circle (2001)
Sion Sono begins his film with a bang…
Caché (aka Hidden) (2005)
I saw Michael Haneke’s multi-layered arthouse thriller in a packed cinema in Paris. When this happened, everyone gasped in horror.