'Girl Without Hands' Struggles to Balance Beauty, Bleakness

Directed by: Sebastien Laudenbach; Runtime 76 minutes
Grade: B-

The stories gathered together and retold by the Brothers Grimm have a reputation for being dark, but also timeless with the moral themes that they convey, often centered around greed, deceit, and the dangers of trusting strangers. Whether it's because Disney never got around to adapting the story or because the premise itself begins on such a sad note, The Girl Without Hands remains one of the lesser-known fairytales curated by the Brothers Grimm, despite being an explicit concentration of those ideas popularized in their other works. Perhaps that sort of story -- hinged on a swindled father, a desire for wealth, and a daughter who's forced to become handicapped as a result -- needs a more conceptual or avant-garde approach to visualize its almost-pessimistic grimness. French artist Sebastien Laudenbach catered to this idea with panel upon panel of meticulous hand-drawn animation, bringing to life The Girl Without Hands within a largely faithful, quietly lyrical and beautifully austere flow of artistry.

A single-child milling family lives near a stream, one which has experienced a decrease in flow and resulted in a lack of prosperity for the family. The child, a young girl, happily plays in the backyard of their home, frequently climbing the tree and cleansing herself in the meager water available. One day, the miller encounters a peculiar merchant in the wilderness who senses his plight, and thus proposes an offer to the ailing father: that if he hands over what's in his backyard, he'll be blessed with riches for the remainder of his life. Assuming the man was talking about the tree in his backyard, the miller agrees; however, unbeknownst to him, the agreement was actually referring to his young daughter. Circumstances of their agreement shift over the years as she grew into a woman, and the only way that this man -- now appearing to be a devil, if not the devil -- would accept the daughter is if her hands were cut off. Thus, the story follows her life after she loses her hands, impacting her family and future relationships.

Reminiscent of some of the sparser and less-detailed artistry found within the watercolor-like visuals from The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Sebastien Laudenbach leaves open spaces on his canvas in creation of the atmosphere surrounding the miller's home and beyond. Laudenbach takes that aesthetic a step further, allowing broad, sometimes harsh brushstrokes and an absence of shading inside both faces and buildings to sway the film's ethereal presence between realism and other-worldliness, amplified by erratic jitters and in-and-out vanishing of facial features. There's very little dialogue in general, only used when necessary for story lucidity, but the silent opening allows those watching to purely absorb the craftsmanship orchestrated by Laudenbach and become submerged in his desired aesthetic, one of ethnic and chronological ambiguity. Every frame expresses a lot without needing dialogue; each freeform image, as cliche as it may sound, could be hung in a gallery and absorbed on standalone merits.

The Girl Without Hands is an inherently fickle tale, though, in which the demands of this devilish spirit are dictated by the story's commitment to chop off the girl's hands, twisting mysticism and purity of spirit in multiple directions for bleak purposes. Even knowing about the heart of the premise and the darkness that often follows the tales of the Brothers Grimm, the decisions made by the father and the plight of the daughter turn darker than expected, approaching the grim reflections and purposeful nihilism one might find in, say, one of Robert Bresson's moral fables. At times, especially when it comes to his perception of cleanliness, the capricious moving parts of the devil's demands make frustratingly little sense and aren't helped by the tale's disinterest in clarifying them; those watching must chalk up the demon's aversion to purity as a facet of his tastes, despite how infatuated he is with corrupting the miller's family. The magical aspects don't really follow any rules and obscure the devil's true desires, which hurts the film's well-paced transition into a portrait of the handicapped girl adjusting to her new normal.

Through the daughter's story of survival, discovering love, and the miracles of motherhood, The Girl Without Hands pours an assortment of emotional themes into its journey, though Sebastien Laudenbach spares his audience from the religious overtones of the Brothers Grimm's telling. By doing so -- and by being somewhat vague about whether it's a devil or The Devil™ pulling the strings -- Laudenbach allows the story's thematic intentions about wealth, negligence, and deception to flow through the mesmerizing artwork, tweaking its intentions for a message more easily embraced on a broader scale. There's bravery in how dishearteningly this animated film depicts the nature of temptation, but also insightfulness in how it cascades into the daughter's perception of offerings from strangers and how the purity of her resistance can see its rewards. Regardless of the despair, however, The Girl Without Hands continues to discover striking and mesmerizing beauty, both visual and emotional, in the darkest moments of her despondent journeys through a world very much befitting a Grimm fairytale.

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