The Mechanics of the Heart

A little over a week ago, my family gathered around to watch the movie Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart. The trailer led me to believe we’d see a steampunk romance with something of a Tim Burton-influence. What we got was a rather surreal French film full of compelling visuals and an interesting soundtrack that reminded me of some of my favorite steampunk musical artists such as Abney Park, the Nathaniel Johnstone Band, Vernian Process, and Unwoman. In many ways, I fell in love with it, even though the film never quite achieved its full potential.

In addition to the music and the stunning visuals, I loved that the film’s mad scientist was a woman and that pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès appeared as a major character. Much of the film’s second half is set at a circus populated by loveable characters who would be at home in a Tim Burton film.

Although there’s a lot to like in this film, I was underwhelmed by the romantic plot. In it, boy falls in love with girl on first sight, girl disappears, boy meets rival for girl’s affections and endures years of abuse at said rival’s hand, boy finally learns where girl is and goes after her, boy can’t get courage to reveal to girl that he is the boy of her dreams. I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers. The ending is sufficiently unexpected to redeem this plot somewhat. Still, the women in the film generally exist as romantic interests or nurturing figures. To top it all off, the film has a somewhat rushed and flat-feeling English dub and the DVD we watched had no option to watch in French with subtitles. Since watching, I’ve looked and can’t seem to find the French version available on a Region 1 DVD at all, which is both something of a mystery and a shame. It’s not like many North American DVDs don’t include French-language tracks!

After watching the film, we watched the special features which teased us with information about a book and an album. It turns out the movie is based on a concept album called La Mécanique du Cœur by the band Dionysos which was turned into a book by the band’s lead singer, Mathias Malzieu. In something of a plot twist, I discovered that while I couldn’t find the English-language soundtrack album on iTunes, I could buy the French soundtrack and the original French album. The title translates as “The Mechanics of the Heart” and in many ways, that proves to be a much better title for the work.

Once I realized that Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart was basically intended to be a steampunk and Gothic-flavored rock operetta, it made much more sense to me. Overall, the piece is more a metaphor for the fragility and unpredictability of the human heart than a coming-of-age romantic tale. Also, I’d argue not all the scenes should be taken literally. For example there’s a scene where Jack the Ripper mysteriously appears. This confused me during my initial viewing, but after pouring over the lyrics, I realize that Jack the Protagonist is having a moment of fear that his obsession could turn him into Jack the Ripper. Indeed, not your usual light animated fare. Steampunks in particular will likely find the beautiful, imaginative artwork inspiring.

Parents of young children may want to preview the film to decide if it’s suitable for their family. Some moments, such as the aforementioned Jack the Ripper scene, may well be unsuitable for younger children. Also, parents should note, the original album does contain rather explicit lyrics in English, most of which were toned down considerably or removed for the movie.

Despite my reservations, it was exciting to see what French artists are doing in the steampunk realm. The images and music from this movie are still swirling around in my thoughts. The original album has already become part of my collection and I’ve decided I need to make the movie a part of my permanent collection. It’s solid musical poetry that could have achieved true greatness if the narrative elements were as solid as the imagery and the metaphors.

Update: 7/18/2017: My DVD copy of Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart arrived and I’m pleased to report that it not only has the English dub, but it include the original French language track, along with optional English subtitles. I’m guessing the English-only copies are the ones for rental, but copies made for retail sale have both languages, even though they aren’t advertised as such.

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