Rated: PG (I would not recommend this for children, most of the content would go over their heads and the feel is too mature.)
The Rules of Having a Clockwork Heart
1. Never touch the hands of your heart,
2. Keep your temper under control,
3. Whatever else you do, never fall in love.
‘Coz then forever more if your heart goes in a spin,
The big hand at your core will pop out of your skin,
Your bones will implode,
The cogs and springs will explode,
And your cuckoo clock heart will grind to a halt for good.
You’d be Forgiven for Thinking People were High when Making This…
On a cold, dark night in Edinburgh in the year 1874 a destitute, pregnant lady falls on the doorstep of a very strange yet competent woman called Madeleine. Madeleine is straightforward and to the point (I emphasize that due to the very forward way she acts as midwife) and many things at once; a doctor, mechanic/inventor and also known by the town as a witch. The baby is born with a heart so cold it’s frozen and Madeleine believes he’ll die thus embarks on early transhumanism or at least cyborg/android surgery with great dexterity. She grafts Jack (the baby) a small cuckoo clock to replace his heart and this leads to some very robotic movements throughout the film. Jack’s mother decides that Madeleine would raise Jack much better than she could and walks back into the cold.
On his tenth birthday Jack is allowed his first trip to town, Madeleine is very scared about the effects it could have on his heart but she can’t always shelter him and so they go… Onwards in their journey – and this film is very much about a journey or journeys and transformations. On this trip the inevitable happens, Jack falls in love at first sight with a girl who plays an organ barrel and interestingly breaks out into thorns (and later wears a petal dress with roses in her hair – no wonder she’s called Miss Acacia). For a child who knows nothing about love he seems to know about sex from one of the lines he bursts out into song with and indeed he must be well versed with romantic poetry.
Madeleine agrees for Jack to go to school after he convinces her that’s the only way he’ll learn about life but cruelty and cold curiosity can start very young as Jack is horribly bullied and his heart toyed with. Circumstances transpire that he ends up on the run from the police with Madeleine faking his death, and so begins the next part of his journey – a tailspin to meet the girl he fell in love and meeting other colourful characters along the way.
Life is a Dream, and Name Dropping
Continuing the travel theme in which according to Jack he travels ‘halfway across Europe’ from the body of his seemingly homeless mother in Edinburgh (initially I thought it based in Paris) to Spain to find his almost lost love the film also illustrates a huge metaphysical side to this journey, in both as daydreams to apparently magical metamorphosis of the environment interspersed in ‘everyday life’. From Miss Acacia described as a ‘twittering bird in high heels’ literally floating like a pretty Red balloon/flower to train journeys looking like runaway mine-train roller coasters meeting Jack the Ripper on one to a another accompanied by newly found friend ‘a magician on the verge of a wreck’ Georges Méliès (Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès in ‘real’ life 1861–1938) is also an illusionist and filmmaker, and who has a touch of Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days – 1873) about him. One of the films he makes is probably the best rendition of Romeo and Juliet (Juliettes) I’ve ever seen (I hate that play) featuring himself as an undersea diver (another Jules Verne reference?) wooing a Siamese twin laying in a giant clam shell. Another of the journeys to me was very similar to the boat ride scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). Even one of my favourite books Don Quixote gets a mention.
I haven’t read the graphic novel this was based on: La Mécanique du cœur (The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart) written by Mathias Malzieu but I have to say so much was going on so fast in this film that I felt the characterization suffered a bit until the last part where it really feels a lot deeper and more ‘real’/heartfelt than the rest. That was highlighted by the tendency of such stories to have excessively styled characters i.e. extreme rather than ‘normal’ or ‘quirky’ – these are very different characters who without time and care taken seem caricatured. That doesn’t mean they are not charming and I can see that they are outcasts or alternative society but rather than perhaps showing that others treat them as a freak show they are presented as such though to an extent they seem to take pride in it 🙂
Whilst I was ok with the above I really didn’t like the voice casting for the child-teen characters – the actors sound far too old. Their verbose and educated dialogue wasn’t the problem it’s more that physically they sounded too adult and that hampered the film for me. The older characters are fine though, from the Marlene Dietrich like Madeleine to the man with a xylophone for a spine in between which oil is externally inserted.
At times they were hard to understand due to the fluid pace of their words and sometimes accents, funnily enough it was the Scottish accents that befuddled me at times over the French ones.
I’m not one for romance films unless they’re beautifully done and this is one of those; a story of love that like the nature of the rest of the film is a fast, heady journey from the first overwhelming flutters to communicating and traversing distances, confusion, treachery, tragedy, despair, understanding and release.
The is very much a dark Winter film, we don’t often see daylight and even then it’s mostly cloudy so it’s a moody affair coupled with symbolism. A strange and surreal movie even for Goth (in this case Steampunk) media and one that perhaps would have also suited stop motion techniques but the CGI here seamlessly fits in with the atmosphere; the constant danger, fear and trepidation to the carnival, festivities and dream like quality it all has.
Sometimes the finish is soft with soft lighting at others it’s sharp where you can see strands of their hair and fabric textures. The characters are mostly stick people with big heads – that doesn’t sound too appealing but it works well like in many of the films mentioned in the Conclusion & Comparisons section below. Most of them have distinctive features and costumes but Jack and Acacia are really the only ones that change in look from a ‘boy next door’ to a dapper, creepy harlequin and her from a ‘girl next door’ to a Spanish senorita.
The Music is the Best Part; Song, Poetry, Rap
Some readers might have recognized the name of the author mentioned earlier but Mathias Malzieu not only wrote the novel, screenplay, directed and voice acted in this but is also the lead singer (and player of um instruments not usually found in rock bands) of the French band Dionysos (not to be confused with the Swedish/German metal or French Canadian progressive rock bands) and the music for this was their responsibility. They released a concept album by the same name as the novel in 2007. Their style or indeed styles translate really well in the film, from the background music to the songs including rock, folk, rap (that’s on top of the already speedy spoken word in dialogue at times) to blues with a ukulele and cymbals. At times it feels a clash that works at others it’s enchanting with vocals of a glass like tone.
Conclusion & Comparisons
Given the conditions of Jack’s heart he goes through many ordeals and changes that could easily have caused cardiac events but we see it smoking and stalling only when in contact with his amour, he even describes her consistently in terms relating to fire.
It’s a very artistic film but I did find it too juxtaposed, if it wasn’t for the last part and the music I would have given it a 3/5. It has a very interesting premise and characters but with the progression of animation techniques and in comparison to now classic or at least much loved films like A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Coraline (2009) it wouldn’t be anything special especially as it looks family friendly/for younger children but really isn’t. In feel it’s more like Corpse Bride (2005) but better, perhaps Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) but not that adult and at it’s very best it perhaps could of had the magical appeal of A Monster in Paris (2011) but it’s too madcap for that. It’s detail is worth noting though it’s not technical like inventive sci-fi, it’s more silly and theatrical in keeping with its genre although the dialogue is a treat and may be more suited to a book format, here it adds to the overall feel of a beatnik-esque experience.
Interestingly this review has too many instances of the words ‘very’ and ‘but’ in it which sums up my opinion of the film – it has a lot of ingredients but… ;-).