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Heartland Film Festival: ‘The Elephant and the Butterfly’ is a beautiful fable about family

During the final day of this year’s Heartland Film Festival, every  single finalist was shown to the public one last time, although all the  winners were announced the day prior. Taking home the coveted grand  prize for “Best Narrative Feature” was a foreign film titled The Elephant and the Butterfly.  Going into this film as my final screening of the event, I had high  hopes that it would surpass all other narratives I had seen prior. While  it didn’t do that, there’s a clear reason why it won the grand prize. The Elephant and the Butterfly is a heartwarming story about family, achieving its purpose of being a feel-good film almost too well.

The Elephant and the Butterfly follows a young man named  Antoine, a chef of sorts who returns to visit an ex-lover and their  child. The twist here being that the little girl, Elsa, has never met  Antoine and doesn’t know of his existence. A twist of fate causes Elsa’s  mother to ask Antoine to babysit, which turns into a whole series of  events with Antoine finally getting to connect with his daughter.  Together they play games, read stories, go to the beach, cook, paint,  and all sorts of other activities. It’s not the most complex film or the  most original concept, but its execution of these elements is near  flawless.

The two leads of Antoine (played by Thomas Blanchard) and Elsa  (played by Lina Doillon) are both likeable, relatable, and even  sympathetic at times. The chemistry between the two is absolutely  fantastic, with the young child actress playing Elsa being particularly  talented at the role. There are times when I wasn’t sure if the director  just started rolling and told the two to improvise, because it was all  so natural and realistic. Blanchard turns what could have been a  potentially creepy character into a lovable father, but the star of the  show is definitely Doillon’s Elsa. She’s just so gosh dang cute, even if  she’s just filling the trope of the manic pixie dream daughter. It’s  like when you babysit your own young family members; they do the dumbest  things but you can’t help but smile. Well, you smile until they start  playing with the knives.

This great strength of the film is also what serves as the point that  weakens the rest of the movie. It’s a nice feel-good movie, but that’s  all it is. There are some points within the narrative that try to take a  more dramatic turn (Antoine’s hatred of the stepfather, whatever is  happening with the other babysitter, the business involving the  restaurant Antoine is buying, the business involving Elsa’s crazy  Grandma, etc.), but it all just never develops into anything. If one of  those angles had been played out more within the film, the developing  relationship between Antoine and Elsa would have been much more  impactful. As it stands, the narrative just feels like it’s missing that  special something to truly ascend above the other narratives at  Heartland.

This is, of course, aside from one of the greatest scenes I think  I’ve seen in any movie. In this scene, Antoine swipes his daughters  scrapbook, rips out the picture of her and her stepfather, tears the  stepfather specifically out of that image, neatly folds the bit of  picture up, swallows it whole and downs it with a glass of some  alcoholic beverage. That little bit of insanity was the best dramatic  element in the whole film, but even that felt underdeveloped compared to  the whole of the film.

Another point of contention would have to be the filmmaking style.  The film included a lot of shaky cam and more action oriented shots,  even when it might not have been the best choice. It wasn’t bad enough  that it turned on the motion sickness, sending me straight to the  nearest trash bin (likely thanks to the fact I spent a lot of the film  reading the subtitles), but the person I saw the film with noted that it  made him uncomfortable. There also aren’t too many shots establishing  locations and the passage of time. It’s hard to tell just how long  Antoine and Elsa are together, which may have been an intentional  choice, but it leads to the question of just how long Elsa’s parents  were away. It’s one of those things that’s likely left intentionally  vague, but it just became a nagging question in my mind.

Despite those problems though, the real unsung hero of the film is  the score. It’s very minimalistic, sticking to short piano features and  limited instrumentation. It gives the film the whimsical touch it needs  to accompany the adventures of Antoine and Elsa. The moments of the film  where the two are just spending time together with no dialogue, just  laughter and the score, are easily the best parts of the film. It’s like  wrapping yourself up in a warm, comfortable blanket with a mug of hot  cocoa. There’s not really anything to challenge you, it’s just a  pleasant experience overall.





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Featured image: Heartland

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