The prospect of dementia is a real fear for many of us, so it’s no wonder it’s become such a well explored subject in the world of cinema. From feature length to short, we’ve seen numerous films attempt to highlight the effects of this syndrome, so how does a filmmaker tell such a story in a new, inventive and engaging fashion? Well, for French director Franck Dion he decided to take a very personal story and translate it into the poetic animation The Head Vanishes.
Following its elderly protagonist Jacqueline, as she takes her detached head on a train journey to the seaside, though the literal translation of a woman losing her head (or mind) might be a little on the nose for some, there’s a personal side to this story that might make you see The Head Vanishes in a totally different light. As Dion explains in this interview with Cartoon Brew:
It’s to Dion’s credit that The Head Vanishes doesn’t become just another bleak film about the perils of old age (I’ve seen a fair few recently!). In fact, instead of taking the subject of degenerative dementia and really hammering home the resonating effects of this syndrome, Dion employs a light, almost fantastical, touch which adds a real sense of adventure to his tale.
From the pigeon noises that accompany the appearances of the frantic daughter, the exaggerated size difference between mother and child (highlighting the fact that these roles have somewhat switched) and the dreamlike underwater sequence, it’s clear the director wasn’t going for gritty realism here. Instead, the picture Dion paints isn’t an external one, looking with deep sympathy at Jacqueline as she suffers with a neurodegenerative disease, The Head Vanishes instead portrays a very internalised vision, trying to put you within the headspace of its lead character. As the director explains in this interview with Skwigly:
The way that the main character Jacqueline’s hallucinations degenerate was partly inspired by descriptions shared with me by someone who suffered from hallucinations and waking dreams that could last for a month at a time. I adapted those descriptions to my own imagination, populated by fish, a train without a locomotive, and chickens.
As a father of two young children, and child of two elderly parents, at times it feels like I’m surrounded by constant reminders of the aging process and its inescapable effects. With this (consciously or unconsciously) playing on my mind, it can be difficult to feel enthusiastic at the prospect of watching a film about an elderly woman suffering from dementia. However, Dion adds just the right level of escapism and just the right level of entertainment into his film to make a captivating, enjoyable and thought-provoking piece. With The Head Vanishes he has taken a well-explored subject and made it feel fresh and inviting by injecting it with a new perspective and his strong aesthetic style and for that we salute him.