Gorgeous, fluid animation helps the Spanish-made love story Chico & Rita stand out from the crowd. It’s a languid, atmospheric affair about the on-off romance between a knockout jazz pianist and a chanteuse, beginning in 1940s Havana and winding its way through 1950s New York, Paris and Las Vegas. It is tenderly drawn, bristling with lively detail, but with a strange vacuum at its core. The passion for jazz is palpable, the carnality less so. As one of my favourite critics, Nigel Andrews, suggests in the Financial Times, “the love affair, maybe, should have gone back to the drawing-board.”
Most cinema aspires to the condition of Saturday-morning animation — that is, simplistic characterisation, primary colours, violence without consequence. But there’s a persistent frisson, even in our post-Fritz the Cat/Akira/Team America age, to seeing animated features which are aimed far over the heads of children. Animation usually represents our first contact with the moving image, and that association takes a long time to challenge. The form has unshakable connotations of innocence and simplicity, and there’s a special thrill when adult material trespasses on that territory. Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir, or Richard Linklater’s Rotoscope twin-pack, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, are among the recent grown-up ventures into cartoonland which drew on the mismatch between soft lines and hard truths.
These films exploited animation as a proxy either for memory, dreams or delirium. It’s much rarer for a filmmaker to use animation to tell a story straight, as Chico & Rita does. It has more in common in theory with Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, the story of two Japanese children orphaned during the Second World War. Both films attempt to shake off most of the flourishes typical of animation, using it instead to evoke an otherwise unattainable essence. Something as traumatic as Grave of the Fireflies would be harder to achieve with a flesh-and-blood cast rather than a pen-and-ink one. A live-action Chico & Rita, with all the period sets and costumes it would demand, could only fall at the first hurdle: budget. (The Cotton Club has its defenders but even they wouldn’t claim it was a money-spinner.)
Despite liking the film, I was bemused by last week’s interview with its directors on The Culture Show, where Mark Kermode told them: “I think in this film you have the best sex scene I’ve seen in cinema this year.” The movie I saw showed the main characters in a naked, moonlit embrace, with Chico kissing Rita’s breasts, and the camera retreating along the bed, before we cut to the next morning, with Chico (clothed) at the piano, and Rita (naked) sashaying across the room toward him. The advantages of shooting a sex scene in an animated film are clear — none of the participants is likely to have a no-nudity clause in their contract. But while the scene is perfectly sultry, I wonder what Kermode saw in it. As far as I could tell, it adhered entirely to the central demand of any live-action equivalent: women can be shown naked, but male nudity is taboo.
Another gripe. The film took six years to make, so you can’t help but feel disappointed that no one involved in that painstaking production noticed that Chico has many lengthy flashbacks to events at which he wasn’t present, in places he hasn’t even visited.