French animator Sébastien Laudenbach’s ethereal first feature The Girl Without Hands, based upon the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the same title, is a singular vision come to life.

Working virtually alone for several years, the filmmaker, who has employed various techniques in his multiple award-winning shorts, fabricated a boundlessly imaginative 2-D landscape in the film, which might be the most sincere Grimm fairy tale ever put to screen, though its violence, cruelty and sexual content make it decidedly adult-oriented.

Misadventures plague a young girl (Anaïs Demoustier) after her father (Olivier Broche) exchanges their family and her hands for endless gold from the Devil (Philippe Laudenbach). Handless, she suffers, until—like so many other female protagonists of folklore—she meets a prince (Jérémie Elkaïm) and marries him. Yet their union amplifies her suffering. The forces that torment her are relentless, but so is her spirit.

The Girl Without Hands is radiant illustrated poetry: Its verses are not written, but hand-painted in fluid shapes and colors. Laudenbach is also an impressive poster child for DIY moviemaking. He, the “man without a team,” is also a “man with all the freedom,” who created this project drawing-by-drawing as a free-flowing work of art, not following a screenplay or storyboard. He shared with MovieMaker why being responsible for every frame was both liberating and torturous in indistinct measures.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What about this specific fairy tale did you find compelling?

Sébastien Laudenbach (SL): When I read it, I immediately found it modern. I liked the path of the girl who has to leave a man’s world: her father first, then her prince. She has to be alone growing up. She needs time to be herself, to be whole. And when she is ready, she can come back to the world. This was very important for me. I think it was the first time I read a fairy tale that told such a story, a fairytale where being a princess was not the happy ending, where it was better to be a woman than a princess. It seemed universal to me. And it made me think about some parts of my youth. This is a story of a woman, but also the story of a man, the prince, who has to go away to fight in faraway wars, and come back. Also for him, it is better to be a man than a prince. This man is not a superman, not a superhero. He is a man, with his weaknesses. But as a simple man, he can be loved.

MM: What did you think animation could add to the story?

SL: I don’t particularly like animation itself. My favorite movies are not animated. But I think animation is a great medium to speak about human feelings because in animated films there is no humanity: no bodies, no faces and no eyes. There is only representation of that. In animated films, you have shapes in movement, lines, colors, metamorphosis, materials, lights and so on. That’s why animation is a very interesting way to speak about humanity and human feelings—you have to keep some distance from reality. If you copy reality, it’s the wrong way. This distance from reality is poetry. In fairy tales you can observe the same distance. Fairy tales were made to speak about the deepest feelings we have. Fairy tales are not stories; they are archetypes and metaphors. So there is a strong relationship between fairy tales and animation. Both maintain distance from reality in order to speak better about it.

MM: Looking at this film, and your shorts, it seems that you have a consistent stylistic approach in which drawings are like sketches or watercolors—the lines don’t perfectly connect, and they have a beautifully rustic look. Can you describe how you developed this style?

SL: I like to say that my 10 films are each of them a first film, because I develop a unique style for each film. Some have been made with drawings, others with sand or objects. The look of this one was chosen because I was animating it all alone. So I decided to focus on drawings, specifically incomplete drawings. The eyes and brains of the audience could complete these drawings. My second choice was to put only one color on each character: to define them by a line and only a colored shape behind the line, just to extract the character from the background. I also decided to improvise the movie, without any script or storyboard, following the canvas of the story from the beginning to the end, as a jazzman. All these production choices finally revealed a style, a kind of animated writing. The film has been written in drawings.

MM: You also do unique things with the animation in this film. For example when the characters breathe, we see them appear and disappear. When there is tension the lines also react—the movement of the lines flows and changes throughout the film.

SL: That’s one of the most interesting things I discovered when I saw what I had done. You have to know one important thing: I animated the film with drawings on paper, like any traditional drawing. But to see the result of the animation I had to shoot the sheets one by one, frame by frame. I was so impatient to draw. I didn’t want to waste time shooting the frames. So I drew the first 40 minutes of the film without seeing the result and without knowing if it worked or not. I discovered everything one year after. And I realized that my characters breathe with their lines, and not with their chests. As I said before, there is no body, so they have no chest! They are made with lines and colors. So it seems normal to me if they breathe within the material they are made of. In that way, it was not a choice, it was a discovery.

MM: The stories in your shorts and in the one in this feature are similarly adult-oriented. Do you feel there is a lack of animated work that focuses on darker subjects, rather than being aimed at children? 

SL: I think you can tell everything you want with animation techniques. I am focused on adult topics, but I also like children-targeted movies. Children are a very good audience: They can understand a lot of things in a movie, even more than adults, sometimes. In France we released the film for an audience 8 years old and up. It was not easy, but it was very interesting. Their reaction was amazing. They understood the essence of the story: its violence and cruelty, but also its happy ending. Obviously they can’t understand some parts, but it doesn’t matter. The job of a child is to understand the world. So I like keeping some mystery, some dark parts. It is life! A lot of adult movies can be shown to children. For 80 years the animation industry focused on child audiences, but for the last 20 years we have been living and writing a new page of animation history with more and more adult movies. I like to say that animation is living its teenage years. It is the age of possibilities! [L’âge des possibles is the title of a 1995 Pascale Ferran movie.]

MM: You did almost everything in this film. You are a one-man band. What are some of the challenges and advantages of having nearly absolute control of every frame in the film? 

SL: The main challenge was finishing the film. One month before the end, I was desperate. I thought that only students in animation could be interested in something like this. I thought that there was no story and no movie at all. I imagined the audience leaving the theater after 10 minutes. Fortunately, I wasn’t entirely alone; I was supported by my tiny crew (mainly my producer, my editors and also my wife). The rest of the time, I felt really, really free. And this freedom was so great. At the beginning I was free to not finish the film. And during the animation process, I was in a trance. I could feel the movie, deeply; it followed its own way, it was stronger than me. I didn’t control anything, even though I drew everything.

MM: Can you tell me about the color palette you use in the film? 

SL: I drew it with only two tools: a black pencil and a grey one. For one frame I used several sheets of paper, one for each color. When I digitized the drawings with a photo camera, I composed it, telling the computer to assign one color for each layer, like serigraphy [silk screening]. So I could control the color palette until the end of the process. Colors are very important for me. My main influence is the Les Nabis group of [French post-impressionist] artists, like Maurice Denis, for instance. I didn’t want to copy the reality, I wanted to use colors for the feeling they provide. That’s why my trees are not green with a brown trunk, but blue or red or violet. The other important part of color is the character. Each character has its own color. Blue for the girl is for purity, and also for her relationship with the water—though in my film bodies of water are green or yellow.

MM: Can you walk us through the process of building a scene in terms of the backgrounds, then bringing in the characters?

SL: The process is very simple. For each shot I make a layout, with the main poses of the character. Sometimes this layout is precise—when I have a structure for example. Other times, I simply don’t do it and go straight ahead to the animation. To animate, I use A5 sheets of paper. Some drawings are very small. I can sketch some key frames, but I draw directly with ink. I make the backgrounds with the same tools and the same layer technique. I can create three or four shots a day, which means footage of 10 to 20 seconds, including the backgrounds. It depends on the difficulty of the movement I have to animate. When I am doing a shot I think about the next one, and maybe the one after. But I don’t have more than two or three shots in mind. And I go ahead like that, following the story.

MM: What is it about 2-D animation that you enjoy so much?

SL: I like to draw. Drawing with ink on paper provides an immediate pleasure. It is simple and free, and can be beautiful. I certainly dedicate a lot of my time to do it, and I worked hard. But I spent only three years on this film, which is not so long. The [studios] use the computer to create worlds that I could never create. I don’t want to compete with them. It is a waste of time. The studios, especially American ones, do the job perfectly well with talented artists. When you don’t have all those talents, and all that money, you have to be smart and find ideas to overcome your poverty. That is why I like hand drawings.

It is also the affirmation of illusion. I don’t understand why the industry looks for realistic backgrounds, especially for nature—like water, for instance. In studio-animated movies, the water looks like real water. In painting history, you can find thousands of different styles for water! Why does the animation industry use only one style?

MM: Were you concerned at all about the graphic nature of the violence and how you would depict that?

SL: Not really. I knew that I wanted to come face-to-face with the violence and cruelty of the tale and not avoid it. The physical violence is the metaphor of a psychological violence, hidden. The film had to be violent in its situations and also in the sound. But I knew the softness of the watercolor effect, and so I knew this violence would be balanced by the images, the texture of the images.

MM: Something I found fascinating was the specificity of the girl’s struggles without her hands: She takes care of her child without hands; she can’t feed herself at first, and she must plant seeds without hands. Were all of these details in the original tale or were they something you chose to add? 

SL: In the original tale there is nothing of this because the tale is just an image. You don’t have characters, you just have archetypes. So I had to create everything, for each situation. Since I didn’t have any bodies, only lines and colors, I had to find a way to make the characters human, to incarnate them. For the girl, I decided to make her alive with fluids: blood, tears, which are in the tale, but also milk, pee and poop. And obviously I was very focused on everything she can’t do without hands, but I didn’t investigate that idea too deeply. A real handless person doesn’t do things in that way.

MM: The Grimms’ ideas about greed, about vanity, about simplicity over opulence, and about persevering even in the worst of situations are expressed in the film with gorgeous visual poetry. Why do you think these concepts are still relevant today? 

SL: The most important theme for me is time. Everyone has to have time to be himself, to be whole and fulfilled. For someone it might take only a few years. For someone else it might take a lifetime. A lot of people, including myself when I was younger, take shelter in the wrong people. For me the tale is not about greed. The father is just troubled by his daughter’s body, which is changing. And he knows that she is ready to leave home, though he doesn’t want that. So between incest and the urge to keep his daughter at the house, the role of the father is mainly to cut off the possibility of the girl leaving and forcing her to be dependent on him. The more he does that, the more she wants to leave. Greed is just a medium to tell this. The concept of greed is always present in life, don’t you think? MM

The Girl Without Hands opened in New York theaters July 20 and in Los Angeles theaters August 4, 2017, courtesy of GKIDS.