March 20, 2006
By Taylor Jessen
The Clara of Clara could, on first viewing, be dead or alive. The short is populated by two girls with plasticy skin and doll hair — one is stop-motion animated and the other has simply stopped. The fact that the title character could be the name of either the deceased or the survivor is just one creepy question mark in this unsettling, mesmerizing Australian short from 2004.
The piece opens in the front yard of someone's suburban home beside a park. A little brunette girl is playing alone next to a bed of flowers, little crimson five-pointed beasties on long snaking stalks that actively grab at her wrist and tug. She pulls one out of the ground and falls back onto the lawn. Pocketing the plucked flower, she unlocks the front door to the house and goes inside. In the hallway is a doggie pull toy. She pulls it down the hall and around the corner, not seeing the ants that are following her in from underneath the front door.
She passes through the kitchen. It's empty, despite something golden bubbling at full boil on the stove. She continues into the living room, where there's an open coffin waiting. Inside is another little girl, this one blonde. The girl hovers over the coffin, not crying so much as letting the moisture swirl about her despairing eyes. She puts the pull toy into the coffin with the flower and leaves the room.
In the kitchen, she's watching the pot boil when she decides to stick her index finger in and hold it there. For several long seconds it suffers the boiling water and when she finally snatches it out, red and blistered, she faints to the floor in agony. When she wakes, she finds herself looking at a row of ants making their way from outside into the living room. She follows, and finds them gathered en masse inside the coffin, circling the plucked flower and winnowing around the dead girl's blouse.
She snatches the flower away and dashes it to the floor. Finally making inroads into a fit of sobbing, but not quite letting go, she picks up the flower, dusts the ants off her dead companion, and takes the flower outside. The ants follow. It's dusk now, and back outside in the garden she parts the dead leaves in the flowerbed and sticks the flower back into the dirt. It takes to the dirt like a miniature tube dancer from a car dealership, wriggling enthusiastically as the girl sits and stares back at the front door of the house, the sun going down behind her.
No epiphany, no catharsis, no dialogue, no adults, and hyperactive plant life — this is an altogether sinister experience that's candy for the eye and witch hazel for the heart. The tone as well as the production design are highly reminiscent of Todd Haynes' Safe, an equally unsettling experience set in a clean, bright suburban landscape where ordinary horrors fall into the lap like so much junk mail.
Director Van Sowerwine animates in what look like plastic dolls, and with only fluttering eyelids and painted-on eyebrows providing any malleability in the face, the acting comes mainly through some very naturalistic full-body mime. The girl Clara (it turns out she's the living girl, not the corpse) shuffles to and fro in a depressed heap, heaves with a sorrow she can't express, and is clearly wracked by grief, the effect all the more impressive given the usually limited range of movement that the medium allows. (Actually, though this looks like the usual hard doll plastic, Sowerwine's characters are silicone.)
--Taylor Jessen/ Animation World Magazine - Review