Cannes discovery ‘Ernest and Celestine’ deserves a US audience

I apologize for leaving my Cannes coverage somewhat unfinished. General fatigue combined with the post-festival distractions of Paris to put all film-related thoughts on the back burner for a week — which frankly, with films as gnawingly variegated as “Holy Motors” or the only superficially tidy “Amour,” can only aid an eventual review. All will be discussed eventually; the films, sadly, are many months away yet.

I did, however, want to start my Cannes catch-up work with a personal viewing highlight about which I’ve received more questions from readers, Twitter followers and the odd colleague than any of the festival’s big winners — perhaps as a result of my placing it one slot ahead of Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner in Indiewire’s critics’ survey of the best of the fest. Invited to name the best five films across all strands of the festival, I didn’t stray too far from consensus: alongside “Amour,” films like “Holy Motors,” “No” and “Rust and Bone” were hardly short of champions. What, then, was “Ernest and Celestine” doing among them?

A humble French-Belgian animated feature aimed squarely and unapologetically at the very little ones — no smug postmodern foolery in the “Shrek” vein here, though there’s plenty to charm adults regardless — “Ernest and Celestine” was an eleventh-hour relief in a festival that, however stimulating, had been markedly short on joy. I’d marked it early on as a viewing priority in Directors’ Fortnight, having been a keen admirer of Belgian directing duo Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s previous feature, the gleefully antic stop-motion curio “A Town Called Panic.” Animation of any form is a rarity at Cannes; to see it in the carefully curated Fortnight lineup was most exciting.

Sadly, scheduling conflicts conspired to make me miss the film’s festival screening — an oversight that piqued me more than most until a market showing popped up on the penultimate day. The downside, given the screening’s target audience of European buyers, was that there were to be no English subtitles this time round: my schoolboy French was going to have to carry me through.

I needn’t have worried. From first watercolor-textured frame to last, “Ernest and Celestine” is schooled in the gentle economy of picture-book storytelling: its words are witty and well-chosen, yes, but it’s the delicate visual construction of its parallel worlds that invites the most scrutiny and empathy. Based on a bestselling series of French children’s books, it shares with “A Town Called Panic” its off-center intelligence and methodical environmental detail, but surprises by being that film’s tonal opposite in almost every other respect: sweetness and compassion trump anarchy here, and yet the film, co-directed with first-timer Benjamin Renner, doesn’t feel like a cop-out. Instead, it’s the kindest, purest celebration of friendship I’ve seen on screen so far this year.

That the friendship in question is between a lonely, busking bear and an orphaned, artistically-inclined mouse — the Ernest and Celestine of the title — wouldn’t make this any less humane an exercise, even if the anthropomorphism on display were less extreme. As it stands, adults and children alike can attach as much allegorical value as they wish to the film’s curiously divided under-versus-overground story world, wherein the subterranean-dwelling mouse population has long been at war with the bears above ground. (Both strata are littered with quirky practical details: that dentistry is the rodents’ dominant industry is a touch that will please anyone who, like me, grew up with a Tooth Mouse instead of a Tooth Fairy.)  

When Ernest and Celestine, neither of whose bohemian inclinations makes them a natural fit in their respective societies, meet and swiftly bond despite their ingrained distrust of the other species, their eventual escape — a chaste elopement, of sorts — to Ernest’s remote forest hut is a bolder act of social rebellion than either of these furry naifs seems to realize. Ascribe a racial or class-based reading to this story if you like: either works, as a pair of neatly twinned climactic court cases bring both populations to the epiphany that, hey, they aren’t so different after all. Still, lest one risk flying too many symbolic flags off this easygoing kids’ fable, this is less preoccupied with PC notions of community than the value of connecting with just one like mind.

If that’s a roundabout way of saying that this cotton-soft, pastel-hued romp nonetheless made me sniffle here and there, I’d prefer to see it once more — with subtitles, this time — before I make yet greater claims for its emotional subtext. Even taken as minor whimsy, however, the film remains a delight, not least for animation buffs: I imagine more digital assistance than is immediately evident might have gone into the film’s graceful pencil-and-wash aesthetic, but the gorgeous results still evoke classic illustration techniques. He may not have written the source books, but one senses Maurice Sendak would be proud.

For all its universal charms, “Ernest and Celestine” is still seeking a US distributor. The film represents a slight challenge to prospective backers: it’s perhaps too child-focused for the kind of highbrow arthouse play that, say, “The Illusionist” received through Sony Pictures Classics, but a little too quiet and rarefied for a crossover kid audience, even in redubbed form. GKIDS, which has recently handled such in-between animated items as “A Cat in Paris” and “Chico and Rita” (earning Oscar nods for both), would be the ideal home for Aubier, Patar and Renner’s lovely film — though as Kris wrote recently, their slate is already looking quite robust. “Ernest and Celestine” is exactly the kind of classy, exquisitely crafted European item that regularly springs a surprise in the Oscar race; here’s hoping it gets a chance to do so.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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