Stopmotion

Stopmotion (2023)

Stopmotion opens with the image of an object floating in space. It is just like the beginning of Eraserhead (1977), which later included some of its own stopmotion sequences – and much as David Lynch superimposed the bobbing face of his protagonist Henry Spencer over the planet to suggest that what we are seeing is Henry’s dream, adrift in inner space, Stopmotion‘s director Robert Morgan will similarly point to the interiority of his own opening sequence by cutting away to a medium close-up of Ella Blake (Aisling Franciosi), standing transfixed, lost and staring to camera on a crowded dance club floor. There she is illuminated by multi-coloured strobes whose light show replicates on her troubled, distorted face an effect akin to the stopmotion of the title. Yet that orb from the opening is not, despite its blue tinge, Earth, nor some other planet like the one that opens Lynch’s film, but, clearly from its ovoid shape, a giant egg, symbol of birth. For here too the viewer is being invited into Ella’s fragile, fragmented headspace to see what is incubating inside to emerge later.

Ella lives with, and very much in the shadow of, her domineering mother Suzanne (Stella Gonet). Both are stopmotion animators, although the mother, despite her crippling arthritis, is definitely master, while Ella remains trapped in the rôle of apprentice, assisting under strict instructions in the animated films that they make together at home. “It’s not my film, it’s my mum’s,” as Ella explains to her musician boyfriend Tom (Tom York), “she’s the brains, I’m the hands”. Indeed their working dynamic recalls the similarly dysfunctional mother-child relationship, also modelled on mimetic puppetry, in Alejandro Jodorowskys Santa Sangre (1989). Ella may manipulate their hand-crafted models for the stills camera, but Suzanne is always sitting behind her calling the shots, and addressing her daughter as ‘Poppet’, which is less term of affection than affirmation of Ella’s status – for Ella is as much under her mother’s control as all the pliable figurines that they have crafted for the productions.

“You can’t control anything,” Ella will later be told – or at least imagine that she is being told – by Suzanne. “You’re a puppet, caught in your own strings, and if it isn’t me pulling them, it’s somebody else. But when the puppets are done with their play, they go back in the box.” Ella certainly feels as though she is stuck in a box, her own creativity stunted as she plays second fiddle to Suzanne, relegated to working on her mother’s stuffy old films with their motifs lifted from classical mythology. “Maybe I could help you come up with some ideas,” Ella suggests timidly to her mother, but when pushed on the subject, is too cowed to put forward any concrete proposal. It is only when a stroke puts Suzanne out of the picture that Ella will be left to her own devices and, moving into a quiet apartment, will stop completing her mother’s last film and start work for the first time on one that is all of her own making.

Maybe not quite all her own. For her new stopmotion scenario – in which a little girl lost in the woods (metaphor alert!) finds herself menaced by the sinister Ash Man – is in fact the invention of a Little Girl (Caoillinn Springall) living in the same apartment building, who has soon made herself at home in Ella’s studio and feeds her ideas about both the film’s plot and the design of its characters. Stopmotion is not Fight Club (1999), and makes no twist of the fact that this Little Girl is in fact a figment of Ella’s fracturing imagination – an internalised voice telling Ella what to do as her mother had done before from the outside. Meanwhile the new film that Ella is making with her little girl puppet – a literal meat puppet, which more figuratively is how Ella sees herself – begins to bleed into the space of the apartment which, like the bungalow in which the little girl seeks refuge from the woods, is soon also being invaded by the Ash Man (James Swanton). Here reality and fantasy, film and film-within-a-film, all become interwoven into a bird’s nest narrative layered with psychodrama and twigs.

Stopmotion

In other words, Morgan’s feature debut, which he co-wrote with Robin King, lays bare both Ella’s unravelling psyche and her traumatic creative process. For in seeking personal expression that has been denied to her since childhood, she is having to dig deep within and to bleed for her art – and if her addled ideas are ever to be brought to life outside of their embryonic shell, first something must crack. These are the painful, disturbing pangs of an artist’s labour – but they are also the surrender of a young woman to her own madness, with consequences that go beyond the gothic grotesquery that she captures in her serial stills. Perhaps the closest analogue to Stopmotion is Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor (2021), with its similar use of metacinematic strategies to expose a female protagonist’s unhinged subjectivity, as Ella, like that film’s anti-heroine Enid, constructs a cut-up reality for herself one frame at a time. Here, creation is also destruction, and working though one’s issues can leave all manner of collateral damage. 

As Ella must grapple with the connections between her own personal, idiosyncratic art and the world of commerce – the latter embodied by Tom’s sister Polly (Therica Wilson-Read) who, in creating stopmotion work for advertising clients, is willing to settle, steal and sell out for her artistic undertakings – there is anxious metacommentary on the rôle of a mannered, messed-up work like Stopmotion in the marketplace beyond. Whatever twisted, ultimately murderous ideas may be playing out in Ella’s (and Logan’s) heads, the world outside is no less exploitative and cutthroat, and seeks, like the Ash Man, to watch, touch and assimilate whatever it finds within. 

Ella’s apartment – a room of her own – becomes a hermetic theatre of the mind, once more recalling Henry’s accommodation in Eraserhead. For on this stage, Ella’s imagination, so long repressed, can finally run riot, and she can live the art life, even as the rooms begin to resemble the disorder of her mental state, and as she begins to efface herself and to merge with her flesh-and-blood puppets. Everything in this film – the domestic environment, the found materials, other people, Ella’s own body – is fodder for the concept that Ella is gradually hatching. Amplified by Lola de la Mata’s discordant soundtrack, Stopmotion is a deeply unsettling portrait of the psychopathy and self-sacrifice that can bleed into a work, shot by shot – and once Ella’s nightmare in a damaged brain has found its ultimate expression, the puppet is ready to go back in the box. This is an arresting, unnerving feature debut from an extraordinary wrangler of humans and puppets alike.

strap: Robert Morgan’s metacinematic psychodrama tracks the uneasy gestation of an original work by an unravelling animator

© Anton Bitel