The stories gathered together and retold by the Brothers Grimm have a reputation for being dark, but also timeless with the moral themes that they convey, often centered around greed, deceit, and the dangers of trusting strangers. Whether it's because Disney never got around to adapting the story or because the premise itself begins on such a sad note, The Girl Without Hands remains one of the lesser-known fairytales curated by the Brothers Grimm, despite being an explicit concentration of those ideas popularized in their other works. Perhaps that sort of story -- hinged on a swindled father, a desire for wealth, and a daughter who's forced to become handicapped as a result -- needs a more conceptual or avant-garde approach to visualize its almost-pessimistic grimness. French artist Sebastien Laudenbach catered to this idea with panel upon panel of meticulous hand-drawn animation, bringing to life The Girl Without Hands within a largely faithful, quietly lyrical and beautifully austere flow of artistry.
A single-child milling family lives near a stream, one which has experienced a decrease in flow and resulted in a lack of prosperity for the family. The child, a young girl, happily plays in the backyard of their home, frequently climbing the tree and cleansing herself in the meager water available. One day, the miller encounters a peculiar merchant in the wilderness who senses his plight, and thus proposes an offer to the ailing father: that if he hands over what's in his backyard, he'll be blessed with riches for the remainder of his life. Assuming the man was talking about the tree in his backyard, the miller agrees; however, unbeknownst to him, the agreement was actually referring to his young daughter. Circumstances of their agreement shift over the years as she grew into a woman, and the only way that this man -- now appearing to be a devil, if not the devil -- would accept the daughter is if her hands were cut off. Thus, the story follows her life after she loses her hands, impacting her family and future relationships.
Reminiscent of some of the sparser and less-detailed artistry found within the watercolor-like visuals from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Sebastien Laudenbach leaves open spaces on his canvas in creation of the atmosphere surrounding the miller's home and beyond. Laudenbach takes that aesthetic a step further, allowing broad, sometimes harsh brushstrokes and an absence of shading inside both faces and buildings to sway the film's ethereal presence between realism and other-worldliness, amplified by erratic jitters and in-and-out vanishing of facial features. There's very little dialogue in general, only used when necessary for story lucidity, but the silent opening allows those watching to purely absorb the craftsmanship orchestrated by Laudenbach and become submerged in his desired aesthetic, one of ethnic and chronological ambiguity. Every frame expresses a lot without needing dialogue; each freeform image, as cliche as it may sound, could be hung in a gallery and absorbed on standalone merits.
The Girl Without Hands is an inherently fickle tale, though, in which the demands of this devilish spirit are dictated by the story's commitment to chop off the girl's hands, twisting mysticism and purity of spirit in multiple directions for bleak purposes. Even knowing about the heart of the premise and the darkness that often follows the tales of the Brothers Grimm, the decisions made by the father and the plight of the daughter turn darker than expected, approaching the grim reflections and purposeful nihilism one might find in, say, one of Robert Bresson's moral fables. At times, especially when it comes to his perception of cleanliness, the capricious moving parts of the devil's demands make frustratingly little sense and aren't helped by the tale's disinterest in clarifying them; those watching must chalk up the demon's aversion to purity as a facet of his tastes, despite how infatuated he is with corrupting the miller's family. The magical aspects don't really follow any rules and obscure the devil's true desires, which hurts the film's well-paced transition into a portrait of the handicapped girl adjusting to her new normal.
Through the daughter's story of survival, discovering love, and the miracles of motherhood, The Girl Without Hands pours an assortment of emotional themes into its journey, though Sebastien Laudenbach spares his audience from the religious overtones of the Brothers Grimm's telling. By doing so -- and by being somewhat vague about whether it's a devil or The Devil™ pulling the strings -- Laudenbach allows the story's thematic intentions about wealth, negligence, and deception to flow through the mesmerizing artwork, tweaking its intentions for a message more easily embraced on a broader scale. There's bravery in how dishearteningly this animated film depicts the nature of temptation, but also insightfulness in how it cascades into the daughter's perception of offerings from strangers and how the purity of her resistance can see its rewards. Regardless of the despair, however, The Girl Without Hands continues to discover striking and mesmerizing beauty, both visual and emotional, in the darkest moments of her despondent journeys through a world very much befitting a Grimm fairytale.
Video and Audio:
GKIDS continues their triumphant streak on Blu-ray with The Girl Without Hands. Partnered with Shout Factory, they've presented Sebastien Laudenbach's artistry in a stunningly colorful, nuanced high-definition transfer, framed at 1.78:1 within a 1080p AVC transfer. Every stroke has texture and sharpness, while every gradation in color shade has both fluidity and naturality, whether it's warm reds and yellows or the cool purples and blues of nighttime. The subtle textures in the backdrops and carefully crafted details embedded within the artwork -- strands of hair on both humans and animals, curves of a body, sprigs of fruit and foliage -- are immaculately preserved. Shadows are most impressive, especially when the sharp lines defining a body fade in an out, emerging and disappearing with deft clarity and zero distortion. Contrast isn't consequential here, really, but the punch of saturation is always appropriate with the imagery onscreen, never asserting too much intensity or betraying the underlying artwork's intentions. It's a stunner, if you're into the look of the art.
The sound design is incredibly sparse in The Girl Without Hands, but the moments that need to muster shiver-inducing clarity certainly do so through this French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Dialogue is rarely above whispery conversation level, delivered gently and presented with care through a silky smooth midrange presence and marginal, yet effective lower-end responsiveness. The atmosphere created by rushing water and rustling vegetation is constantly reserved, but alluring and stable enough to stay immersed in the delicate lyrical atmosphere, tricking to the rear channels in measured but noteworthy doses. When an axe needs to chop, a baby needs to cry, and a dog needs to attack, however, the assertiveness of the track comes through loud and clear with strong clarity and upper-end activity, giving those moments the opportunity to shine in what's ultimately a very quiet movie. The English subtitles are predictably on pointe from GKIDS, rounding out yet another tremendous package.
Beyond a slate of six Short Films from artist/director Sebastien Laudenbach, GKIDS' Blu-ray release has also shored up a fairly standard, concise, but effective Making of The Girl Without Hands (13:37, 16x9 HD) featurette, Interviews with Laudenbach focus upon his creative history with the Grimm story itself, the transition from digital test animation originally planned -- there's a clip included -- to hand drawn animation after running into production difficulties, and the extreme cleverness that went into his composition of the images and cramming it all into a very short timeframe. We've also got a sharp Interview with Sebastien Laudenbach (19:12, 16x9 HD), recorded around the time of his nomination for a Cesar film award. Much of the content ends up overlapping, with discussion about the evolution of the creative process, troubles with financing, and the artistic perspective present in the final image, yet they're worded in a more conversational and elaborated-upon fashion that adds new depth. The interview also trails into the themes and cruelty of the story itself, amounting to a substantive chat.
Rounding the extras out, a Theatrical Trailer (1:39, 16x9 HD) has also been included. A standard DVD Copy of the film has also been included.
Based purely on getting wrapped up in the artwork, Sebastien Laudenbach's The Girl Without Hands is a rapturous cinematic experience, blending loose characterization of its subjects with freeform and abstract movement through sublimely sparse environments. The somberness of the work and the thematic intentions of its storytelling, hinged how a young daughter copes with being handicapped after her father succumbs to temptation, give the entire project a careful, yet striking poeticism as it recounts a lesser-known tale from the Brothers Grimm. A lack of narrative coherence becomes both a compelling feature and an obstacle of sorts for Laudenbach's achievement, where the absence of certain thematic overtones and the inherent go-with-the-flow nature of the villain's caprocious whims detract from its expressive strengths. Still, it succeeds regardless of these concerns, becoming a tremendous achievement for a one-man animated endeavor. GKIDS and Shout Factory's Blu-ray looks and sounds tremendous, and arrives with a nice pairing of interviews and added shorts from the creator. Strongly Recommended.