This would be the last period of extended international peace the world has known. In America, it was the “Gilded Age,” in England, the “Pax Britannica,” and in Paris, it was “La Belle Époque.” It was the height of France’s cultural and scientific prestige, so it is a heady time for a young Kanak girl to visit, but not everything is as rosy as the colorful art and fashions suggest. Fortunately, she turns into quite an adept amateur sleuth in Michel Ocelot’s Cesar-Award-winning animated feature Dilili in Paris, which screens during the 2019 New York International Children’s Film Festival.
The Parisian exhibition of Kanak customs might not look so progressive to us, but Dilili was determined to join it, so she could see Paris, even if she had to stowaway on the trans-ocean-liner, which she did. She dutifully does her time in what look like a zoo for people before sauntering off into the city. Frequently, her guide is Orel, a teenaged delivery-boy, who knows everywhere and everyone through his work.
Much to their concern, the cheerful duo gets wind of an ongoing criminal conspiracy perpetrated by the so-called “Master-Men.” They are committing all sorts of felonies, but most alarming has been the rising number of abductions—mostly young girls, but also some women. Naturally, they decide to crack the case, relying on Orel’s insider knowledge and Dilili’s earnest persuasiveness. Their investigation will bring them face to face with many of the era’s giants, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Monet, Pasteur, Eifel, Satie, Madame Curie, and Sarah Bernhardt. Celebrated soprano Emma Calvé and anarchist activist Louise Michel will even sign on as their full-fledged partners-in-crime-[fighting].
Ocelot’s story is charming and empowering, making its points subtly rather than through didactic ranting. However, the real reason to see it is Ocelot’s stunning animation. He is a genuine virtuoso, but his recent Tales of the Night films, conceived and executed an homages to Lotte Reiniger’s cut-out style animation, feel like they were a little too easy for the maestro. With Dilili, he dives deep into his bag of tricks, combining the richly ornate detail of Azur & Asmar with photorealistic backdrops. In one remarkable scene, Ocelot perfectly renders Dilili’s reflection in a polished marble ornament—not because the narrative required it, but just for fun.
In fact, the intricate design elements of art nouveau are perfectly suited to Ocelot’s strengths as an animated filmmaker. He was clearly inspired by the art, fashion, and architecture of the period. Nearly every scene is a dazzler, often filled with sly visual references to famous works of art from the era. Plus, Gabriel Yared’s classy score further solidifies the elegant ambiance. Still, there is one thing. Nothing untoward ever happens, not even remotely, but Dilili is probably around six or seven years-old, whereas Orel is probably eighteen or so, which leads to some awkward visuals.
So, okay, whatever. The important point is how striking and sophisticated the animation is. Sequence after sequence proves Ocelot is master filmmaker, working at the peak of his abilities. It is a lovely piece of work, with a light and frothy spirit that goes down smoothly, like whatever they are drinking in Montmartre. Highly recommended for fans of highbrow animation, Dilili in Paris screens again this morning (3/2), next Saturday (3/9), and Sunday the 17th, as part of this year’s NYICFF.