Emru Townsend · October 28, 2006 | It's one of life's little ironies that after I'd locked down the latest issue's feature stories on sex in animation, I ended up seeing some of the funniest, most interesting and provocative films built around the subject that I'd ever seen. The most recent, and in some ways the most baffling, is Anders Morgenthaler's Princess, a Danish feature I caught last week at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma.

Princess clocks in at 78 minutes, but it feels longer because your brain spends just about every moment of the film working. It's something of a blessing that August, the main character, spends a lot of his time silently thinking—the breaks in the action give the audience time to process what's been going on.

August has a reason to be so pensive. When the movie opens, he's a man of the cloth, seemingly out of place on the set of a porn film with a pregnant woman as its star. After a little while, the situation clarifies: The scene took place years ago, and the woman was his sister Christina, who he was trying to convince to leave the business. Now, Christina has died, and August has come to take care of her five-year-old daughter Mia, who has been looked after until now by an old and kindly but hard-bitten prostitute. Mia has lived her entire life in the world of the sex trade (though it's unclear why she's in a brothel when her mother worked in the porn industry), and words like "whore" spill freely and unselfconsciously from her mouth. August also discovers, soon enough, that she's been physically abused.

Directed by Anders Morgenthaler, 2006
78 minutes
August spends most of the movie doing two things: trying to win Mia's trust, and trying to get the company that Christina worked for to stop marketing her image. The company is run by Charlie, Christina's boyfriend and the man who built his considerable porn empire around her; naturally, he has no intention of giving in to August's demands.

I should mention at this point that August is no longer a priest, and his actions at this point give a clue as to why. Angered by both the continuing exploitation of his dead sister and the abuse that Mia has suffered, he embarks on a formidable rampage against Charlie's company, as well as the social system that produced it—one of his earliest acts of violence is when he savagely beats a man who picks up a prostitute.

This is where things get tricky. August wants to get Mia away from the world of the sex trade, but he has no problem exposing her to the world of violence and retribution he willingly enters; at one point, he even gives her the opportunity to dole out some payback on her abuser with a crowbar. (If there's any doubt that she was sexually abused as well as physically, it's erased during this scene.) Even so, Mia's experiences have given her a certain clarity in how she views the world, and her matter-of-factness is unnerving, for both good and ill. At one point, she meets two boys her age and suggests re-enacting the hooker-client scenario as casually and cheerfully as another girl might suggest playing house. But she also regularly calls August on the hypocrisy of his deeds and words, at times deflating his assumed moral superiority.

Further complicating matters are the flashbacks we get of Christina's life. Except for the opening scene, all of these flashbacks are live action, many of them from the boxes of videocassettes August keeps from their earlier years. August, it seems, once carried his camcorder everywhere—and we later discover that it was his camcorder, combined with one of Charlie's schemes, that launched Christina's porn career. So how much of August's vendetta is based on guilt? And how much of the responsibility is really his?

Everything about Princess—its plot, its structure, its allure, its difficulty—stems from August's black and white view of a world that stubbornly exists in shades of grey. At one point, Charlie's henchman Sonny chastises: "It's porno, August! She's just a tiny piece in a gigantic fucking puzzle!" He's referring to the porn industry and the web of moral, legal and social complexities it has always existed in, but in a sense he's also referring to the movie they're in. And as we get more flashbacks and August's violence escalates to mass murder, we have a hard time putting the puzzle together, too.

To be brutally honest, Princess has many problems. Some are with logic: for instance, August isn't going out of his way to hide, yet no one can figure out where to find him for most of the movie. Some are with its message: Everything is in shades of grey, yet all the porn producers are designed to look generically sleazy. (If you want to show the ambiguity of the industry and our relation to it, show its purveyors as they look in real life: pretty much the same as other businesspeople.) Still, it's hard to stop watching once the movie's underway, and it's the kind of complicated subject matter than many think of as uncharacteristic for animated films. I for one will happily accept more films as imperfect as Princess if they're also as thought-provoking.
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