Story is king—of this most reasonable people agree—except when it isn’t. There are exceptions to every rule, and Madame Tutli Putli can be thought of as such an exception; a film of confusing and posed profundity, that is remarkable for the sheer fact that it is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
If, unlike me, geeking out over art direction and animation styles is not your cup of tea, then Madame Tutli Putli might be an underwhelming experience. Not to be too harsh on the directors and writers Chris Lavis & Maciek Szczerbowski, the film is in almost cases engrossing and exhibits a fine grasp on the nuances of suspensful tension, but its metaphorical journey is ultimately an unsatisfying head-scratcher, hinting at the edges of death and redemption, damnation and revelation, but ultimately not giving enough clues to support any interpretation. Despite that, the short, produced by the NFB, is one of the most remarkable claymation films yet achieved, perfectly instilling the desired mood and incorporating novel technical innovations.
The film follows its titular character as she boards a train, carrying along with her all her worldly possessions. The extremely expressive animation, of which more will be said, conveys her dejected and defeated demeanor. She is physically and metaphorically weighed down. The first hint that the film will lead you in unexpected directions though is included in this early scene, as Tutli Putli, bedecked in 1920’s garb and accoutrements, boards what appears to be a hyper-modern train.
Aboard the train Madame Tutli Putli surveys passengers around her, an eclectic bunch. It is at this point that the film takes a startling turn. Madame Tutli Putli seems to flit back and forth between dream and reality, confronting demons that may be personal or external, and the mood and direction of the piece tilts towards suspenseful horror. A psychological parable? A stylistic thriller? Answers are left for the viewer to decide.
Well received in 2007 upon its release, the film has had its detractors. The incredible nuance of its look and movements have had many on the web crying, “uncanny valley!”. Personally I do not find this to be an apt critique, and the sheer fact of such a concept being applied to claymation(!) gives you a sense of the technical achievement of the film crew. Undoubtedly a major reason such feelings could ever arise has to do with the film’s most singular innovation, the compositing of actual actor’s eyes onto the clay models. Special Visual Effects artist Jason Walker was largely responsible for the technique’s development, and documents the process nicely on his website. As the NFB has done for many of its flagship projects, the film has an individual site that has a bevy of media that goes further into the creative process and behind the scenes. In the interviews those filmmakers certainly look worn down, I hope they got a good break after the 4 years of work this project took!
Oscar-nominated in 2007, many of you have likely gotten the chance to view the film previously, as it has been included in Cinema 16 and Wholphin collections, as well Magnolia Pictures Oscar Short Film screenings. the NFB has now brought it to the YouTube screening room, likely in honor of yet another probable Oscar-nom for this year, Cordell Barker’s Runaway. Madame Tutli Putli lost out on Oscar that year in spite of its audacious furthering of claymation’s limits. The winner though was of course Suzie Templeton for Peter and the Wolf, maybe the most exciting practitioner of claymation in the short format today. Yeah, claymation is in a good place again.