As part of my duties as chef de bureau, I’m studying French and am currently in a great intermediate level class at San Francisco State. In addition to adding to my limited skills the class exposed me to some French films I’d never heard of. One of them is “Le Petit Poucet”. It’s from 2001 and was directed by Olivier Dahan who also directed last year’s “La Môme” (called “La Vie en Rose” in the States). It’s the film version of a 17th century fairy tale by Charles Perrault, the writer of many of the tales we read or were told as children.
This film was never released here, either theatrically or on DVD, so the class looked at a French DVD that a classmate bought in that country. No subtitles, so I understood maybe 30 percent of the dialogue. That didn’t matter. The story is made of the primal stuff.
The title means something like “The Little Thumb" (masculine diminutive form) but basically it’s Tom Thumb. Unlike the English Tom Thumb, our hero is a full sized boy who is the youngest and smallest of five brothers. He’s also the smartest and bravest. They’re peasants living with their parents on a subsistence farm at the edge of a vast forest.
This movie would scare the half digested Lucky Charms out of little kids so its audience is maybe older kids but definitely movie loving adults.
It’s a beautiful movie. Dahan made a virtue of his apparently limited budget by using mostly old movie technology and not trying to hide it. Instead of being CG, the backgrounds are clearly matte paintings and it was shot on sets. The production design is bold. The first half of the movie is predominantly blue but when they get to the Ogre’s house, it becomes blue and orange-red. That could look cheesy but actually, it works. A lot of the creepiness of the forest is conjured up by sound effects of animals we don’t see but are all around. Eventually we do see the animals.
There are also some Japanese elements. The Ogre’s house evokes Lord Washizu’s castle in “Throne of Blood” and the aftermath of a battle also seems to be a visual homage to Kurosawa. A Japanese composer, Joe Hisaishi, did the music and it works well.
The cast is great. The famous Norma Desmond line, “We had faces”, definitely applies to the French, but in the present tense. Romane Bohringer (the mother of the boys), Élodie Bouchez (the wife of the Ogre) and young Hanna Berthaut (the stepdaughter of the Ogre) all look completely appropriate plopped down in the middle of a fairy tale. Nils Hugon as Poucet and all his brothers are fine and Catherine Deneuve plays the Queen. The Ogre is the only disappointment but finally works well enough. Lacking the budget (I assume) for a big deal Hollywood monster makeup, they gave him a steel mask which occasionally made me think of hockey goalies but that’s nitpicking.
I won’t go through the plot except to say that it’s got starving peasants, endless war, cruel bandits, heartless tax collectors, an ogre, ogresses, wolves and magic boots. Everything you want in a fairy tale. Hopefully someday, someone (Criterion?) will put this out on DVD here. In the meantime, I thank public education.