Little Dilili, the heroine of Michel Ocelot’s new animated film Dilili in Paris, comes all the way from Kanaky (New Caledonia to the imperialists out there), but she’s a cousin of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Another child on her own in Belle Epoque Paris, helped by good guides and tormented by bad ones.
|Image of heroine Dilili, from Dilili in Paris.|
Paris is once again a wonderland starring some of the period’s famous notables. Dilili may also be seen as a cousin to Tintin, exploring Paris as he did Africa, but the movie is a sly send-up of that iconic but retrograde comic book with its stereotypical representations. Even Dilili’s pile of dark hair is a parodic counterpart to Tintin’s blond quiff. So, this is not your grandparents’ cartoon extravaganza but something new, a 21st-century take on the early 20th century. Young children will be entranced, but there are also nudges and winks for maman and papa.
The film’s look is lovingly stylized. In the way of other arty animated movies, such as Ocelot’s Kirikou, there’s a flat, cut-out style meant to evoke storybooks. This is very un-Disney, which is probably the intent, but it also lacks depth and dynamism. To compensate, the filmmaker combines photographic views of Paris with the animation. This jazzes up the visuals, but probably more for the eye of the adults in the room.
|Belle Epoque Paris, from Dilili in Paris.|
The opening of Dilili pulls one in immediately with its perspective. We see a stereotypical “tribal” family, including a young girl, going about the daily struggle of village life. Then the view widens to show that this is actually an artificial exhibit in Paris, part of the Exposition Universelle (World Fair), in which Dilili is a character. (Historians will be aware that “human zoos” were a feature of European colonialism.)
It turns out that like so many child heroes of fiction and film, Dilili is an orphan, half-French and half-Kanak. She complains that she’s considered too light in New Caledonia, and too dark in Europe, but the film doesn’t dwell on this, and viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about race and colonialism. Dilili makes the acquaintance of Orel, who works as a courier and delivery boy, and she takes him on as a guide so she can discover the strange world that is turn-of-the-century Paris.
Soon they’re embroiled in a mystery. It seems that somebody, or a group of somebodies (they’re referred to as the malmaîtres, or bad masters), are abducting young girls. Even though this winds up being a fairy-tale-like diabolical plot by cartoon villains, we can’t help but think of the more realistic circumstances of child abductions. This lends a note of menacing suspense but also leaves a bad taste for the adult viewer and perhaps traumatic fear for a child (though no more than in Hansel and Gretel or the Wizard of Oz). In any case, Sherlock Dilili and her delivery boy Watson investigate, only to wind up as the prey of a malmaître.
|The French poster for the film.|
Dilili and Orel travel around Paris on Orel’s pedal vehicle and enlist the aid of the capital’s leading lights. Since the film is gently but firmly pushing a feminist agenda, several are famous women: the feminist anarchist Louise Michel (who taught Dilili her impeccable French when she was exiled in Dilili’s homeland), scientist Marie Curie, and the divine actress Sarah Bernhardt.
There’s also the sculptress Camille Claudel, not to mention a host of male rabble that includes Rodin, Monet, Gauguin, Picasso, Erik Satie, Proust and the circus performer Chocolat. It’s amazing to consider how many brilliant people lived in one city at one particular time, but for the most part we only get glimpses of them - they’re guest stars. So while the grown-ups will be dazzled, the stars won’t register in the same way (if at all) with very young viewers.
We discover that the malmaîtres are an anti-woman cabal who force girls to wear full-body gowns and to kneel down so that they resemble large stones. The murky aim of the villains is to turn back the clock regarding the progress of women and establish a barbaric patriarchy. Needless to say, after a number of hair-raising encounters with the dread malmaitres, Dilili and Orel and their allies save the day.
This sounds like an edifying girl-power movie, and it is. However, the director’s political subtext is dodgy. The police, from the agent de la police all the way to the Prefect, are held up as villains. Really? Who promulgated the laws that repressed women? Not the police but the lawmakers, who represented the upper classes. And who exploited the female underclass, whether domestics, factory workers, or farmhands? Again, the monied classes, not the police whose ranks came from the working and lower-middle class.
|Dilili and her helpmate, in Dilili in Paris.|
This egregious falsification makes us call into question the film’s general class bias. Although Orel is a working-class gopher, and a chauffeur also joins the good guys (and gals), much of the film’s Paris is composed of the bourgeoisie or glamorous artistes. Yet the French capital at that time was largely populated by workers, the poor and the lower middle-class. To top it off, another of the film’s heroes is Ferdinand Von Zeppelin, the German aristocrat who supplies a marvellous airship to help our side. You wouldn’t know from the film that the zeppelin would become an instrument of mass death a few years after the time-frame of the story, during the First World War.
Dilili in Paris has a genuinely charming, quirky heroine and an affecting sidekick. The vividly rendered Paris of the film can seem magical, and the adventures are often funny and sometimes thrilling. The general point of view, empowering girls and fostering égalité and fraternité (and maybe sororité?) is admirable. But the filmmaker unfortunately goes beyond that, and in a rather dubious fashion, scapegoats phony villains while prettifying a miserable social system. Some might consider the embourgeoisement of young minds to be a worthy mission civilisatrice. Others might call it abuse.
Production: Nord-Ouest Productions, Studio O, Arte France Cinema, Mars Films, Wild Bunch. Ditribution: Mars Films. Photos courtesy of Artemis Productions.
Dimitri Keramitas is an award-winning writer and legal expert based in Paris.