It’s taken several years for me to acclimate to watching foreign films. I could never quite adjust to the seeming off-timing of words to lip movements. It’s not just animated foreign films that have this problem; plenty of live-action films have it, too. My first foray into the genre was with a friend back in high school; alas, I don’t remember which film. Regardless, when I presented my objections, the friend watching the movie with me declared “That’s just how it is,” and so I decided I hated them all and would stick to American movies.
Then, during college, I got into Anime and the game changed. I discovered there were two different camps when it came to watching Anime: the Subs camp and the Dubs camp. Subbers (I call them) are folks who watch only the original foreign language track with English subtitles at the bottom (ergo, “subs”). They say that the translation is more accurate, and that the story is preserved. Dubbers, however, watch the same movie or show with the English dubbing track (ergo, “dubs”), meaning someone in America recorded an English version of the dialogue and then overlaid that atop the video. Proponents of this camp say that paying attention to the action AND subtitles is too much, that the story is just as good as the original, and that a lot of times, they feel the American voice actor is more fitting for the character than the original language actor.
Upon discovering this difference, I immediately gave foreign films another go, this time subscribing to the Subs camp methodology. My goodness, did it make a difference for me. I’ll admit, with some surrealist films, keeping track of the visual symbolism and metaphors AND the words at the bottom can be challenging, but in all others, I don’t feel like the dialogue is rushed or ill-timed. I don’t feel like I lose a piece of the story because the exact translation into English wasn’t enough syllables, or was too many syllables, and therefore the writer changed them so the voice-to-lip synchronization wasn’t so “off.” And the more I watch films from a particular country, the more I learn bits of the language.
When I first started watching Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, I could tell right off, from the first few seconds of the film, that this was not an originally English movie. It showed the classic miss-timing of voice and animation, and it rushed through most lines as though the actors couldn’t quite catch up. The songs were the most telling, since in the original language most stuff would rhyme, but in the English translation it doesn’t. I looked for the original French track, but the Setup menu only had English audio and English subtitles. I was severely disappointed that this would be a strictly American language release. It was originally a French book, adapted into a French animated feature with French voice actors and French songs, then dubbed in English and released to us. That doesn’t bother me, so long as the original language is present; since it wasn’t, I felt like the release was incomplete. I had the same experience with Kiki’s Delivery Service when it first got released on DVD: no Japanese track. I had to suffer through the movie listening to Kirsten Dunst. Remembering that, I got to the end of Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart all riled up and ready to give a piece of my mind on the subject… and then I realized I was watching the DVD, not the Blu Ray! *shameface. Sufficiently mortified, I popped in the CORRECT disc and happily discovered the French track with English subtitles.
Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is exquisitely animated, beautifully surreal, and probably chalk full of symbolism I didn’t detect because I didn’t grow up in the French culture (I have that sense a lot while watching Anime, too). The story starts in Edinburgh, England, during the coldest day of the year, as a young mother trudges through the snow to reach a sequestered house on a cliff, wherein a “witch” resides. She’s definitely different than the rest of Edinburgh: rather scientific, with a touch of the supernatural, and quite adept at mechanical reparations. She’s like a magical Steampunk mid-wife healer, really. This “witch,” Madeleine (Marie Vincent and Emily Loizeau, French version; Barbara Scaff, English version), delivers a baby boy whose heart is frozen solid. She quickly removes the frozen heart and inserts a cuckoo-clock in its place, saving the infant’s life. “However,” Madeleine, tells the new mother, “there are three rules he must never break: he must never touch the hands of the clock; he must master his anger; he must never, ever fall in love.” Whether these rules seem impossible to enforce, or the thought of having a son with a mechanical heart proves too much, the new mother leaves in the middle of the night, saying that the mid-wife would make a better mother than she. All seems well for ten years, until Madeleine takes Jack (Mathias Malzieu, French version; Orlando Seale, English version) out to explore the town, and he meets Miss Acacia (Olivia Ruiz, French version; Samantha Barks, English version), a young street performer with a bewitching voice but horrible vision. Jack nearly dies after this encounter, and Madeleine once again warns him of the three rules he must always observe. “Your heart cannot handle the burden of such emotions,” she lectures him. Undeterred, Jack discovers that Miss Acacia went to school in town, and follows in her footsteps, only to come face-to-face with another Acacia admirer – Joe (Grand Corps Malade, French version; Harry Sadeghi, English version), the school bully. Jack endures four years of torture from Joe, until he finds that Miss Acacia is actually living in a country called Andalusia, somewhere near Spain. After an accident that renders Joe blind in one eye, Jack flees Edinburgh and happens to meet a French would-be film-maker named Méliès (Jean Rochefort, French version; Stephane Cornicard, English version), also adept at repairing clocks. The two head to Andalusia together to find Acacia and to win her heart for Jack.
To quote the text on the back of the Blu-ray case, “Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is a fantastical, wildly inventive tale of love and heartbreak – by turns poignant and funny – in which Jack finally learns the great joys, and ultimately the greater costs, of owning a fully formed heart.” This is absolutely true, but also misleading. The story is primarily one of what Jack suffers to find and be with his love, Miss Acacia, but it also deals with themes like courage, sacrifice, abuse, standing up for oneself, and what people endure when they’re perceived as different. I also found it interesting that the author includes a brief but telling scene from Joe’s point of view. If you pause for a moment and think about it, everyone views themselves as the protagonists of their life story. In Joe’s case, he’s the king of the schoolyard, ensuring order and security by exercising fear-motivated control, protecting his Acacia from a strange, unpredictable, and violent mechanical-operated boy. Of course, conversely, Jack sees Joe’s fate as one he deserves for tormenting those weaker than himself.
The film is visually stimulating, from the unique animation style to the surrealistically influence narrative, moving from reality to dream with seamless transition. Songs are an especially good example of how Jack’s inner life switches between the two with startling continuity. Moons swallow flying trains, a soul greets someone with a kiss, people float on air when speaking of love; there’s even a bizarre and seemingly pointless encounter with Jack the Ripper. (Given Jack’s active imagination, Jack the Ripper could be Jack’s perception of the world outside his home, or it could be his perception of an alternate self, given what happened to make him leave Edinburgh.) Perhaps one of the most emotional scenes for me in this movie is at the end, when death is portrayed as simply the freedom from time – all the world stops, and the dead can climb snowflakes to heaven.
While Jack and Joe seem pretty straightforward characters, Miss Acacia was not. I admired her for her frankness in telling Jack she was in love with someone else and that “embarking on an adventure” with him would be “dishonest.” Too often we have female characters that are easily swayed by the immediate feelings of someone close by. Acacia remains steadfast in this until Jack reveals who he is, at which point we see that they could potentially be very happy. Of course, Joe then rolls back into the picture and tells his version of the same story (which we all know is skewed to steal Acacia from Jack). Here’s my dilemma: how often have we, in reality, been madly infatuated with someone, only to have our assumptions about that person brought to a grinding halt as soon as there’s even a smidgeon of violent element? Joe uses this hesitation to his advantage, showing Acacia the “vicious” side of Jack when Jack is simply defending himself. Unfortunately, Acacia buys right into it. I’m not saying it isn’t wise to rethink one’s attachment to a person if that person starts showing abusive tendencies. But I am saying it would behoove us to observe and conclude for ourselves if such an accusation is true. I’ve been on both the giving and the receiving end of false accusations. Many a life can be ruined by careless words.
There’s so many different layers to Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart. It would probably take several watches to pick up on all the nuances. As end credits rolled, I sat there listening to the music, contemplative of the themes the author chose to grapple. It makes me want to read the book. As with most adaptations, many things are left out or changed for the sake of cinematic story-telling; but in this case, we ALSO have a difference in language. I feel there is so much more to this story than the English can portray, which is why I’m so glad I was mistaken about the lack of French audio track. This film is certainly worth a watch, given the beauty of the world Mathias Malzieu created in the novel and the screenplay. Surrealism and symbolism aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, so if you like it after first view, definitely add it to your collection.