A Film Review of Academy Award Contender: Hugo Bumfeldt
By Rory Winston
The mere mention of animation divides nerds into two camps – those who, having graduated from Looney Tunes, are left pining over Disney Classics and Pixar and those fastidiously pronouncing Hayao Miyazaki before warily adding Katsuhiro Otomo. Though tastes vary, Tim Burton always gets a mention, while Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s a Town Called Panic has connoisseur’s exchanging phone numbers. Content-driven intellectuals drop Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir; and aficionados make sure not to omit Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. As for hipsters, there’s always Ralph Bakshi version of Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat.
Should the conversation sputter into the wee hours, idiosyncratic gems like Rango, Coraline, Monster House, and the Fantastic Mr. Fox inevitably surface. The more philosophically inclined pay lip service to Anomalisa or site Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. A few glasses of cheap French wine later and The Triplets of Belleville are invoked, only to be offset by a beer-guzzling anglophile insisting on Nick Park (moments before amending the choice to South Park and summarily passing out). As for the medley of obligatory sighs and superlatives, this year they will likely go to Loving Vincent – a crime drama on Vincent Van Gogh where every frame is a painted pastiche based on the late artist’s style. It doesn’t hurt that the score is by none other than Clint Mansell.
It is at this point in our nerd gathering, that someone will, no doubt, recall Ferenc Rófusz’s Academy awarded short masterpiece of 1980, the Fly – a beautifully illustrated film that follows a fly on its final journey, as it leaves the great outdoors one fine autumn morning only to meet its fate at the hands of undisclosed nemesis armed with a swatter. What makes the animation unique to this day is that it is filmed from the perspective of the fly. Likewise, what makes this year’s Hungarian entry for best animated short, Hugo Bumfeldt, noteworthy is its singularly disturbing POV, a bleak if not Kafkaesque vision of innocence.
In Hugo Bumfeldt, cruelty is not born of evil but of enthusiastic ignorance. It comes from a character way easier to identify with than Lenny in John Steinbeck’s of Mice and Men, one perfectly tailored to our troubled times filled with gung-ho simpletons in the adolescent throes of making ‘America great again,’ and man-child leaders ready to abuse their power. Meaning, Hugo Bumfeldt gives us a day in the life of an ordinary, albeit extraterrestrial, child whose dad has just returned from outer space bearing a special gift, a living creature from a distant planet. The rather insignificant looking pet is an odd little tadpole-like creature which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a human being in a scuba-diver’s suit.
Curious, sensitive, and enthusiastic, our main character, the alien schoolkid, can hardly wait to start playing with his new present. Raptly tossing him in the air, heartily throwing him into a fish tank, dutifully stuffing its mouth with inedible foods, the child unwittingly tortures his human pet in an endless series of well-meaning attempts at taking care of it. The most shocking aspect is we, the viewer, fathom both the horrors undergone by the pet, as well as the mounting frustration of a child who is doing his best ‘to help’ this irritatingly ungrateful creature that seems to insist on getting sicker by the moment. In this animation, brutality is a casual affair; and horrors are no more than a pastime.
Ultimate terror is not based on malice but ignorance. Watching an otherwise adorable cartoon character inadvertently torture a terrified human being to death is an unforgettably gut-wrenching experience. The image culls forth a visceral response that reminds us just how callously our own species relates to other species. Reverberating with the horrors perpetuated by mankind, the film recalls the casual cruelty by which one race enslaves another, one ethnic group commits genocide on another, one gender ‘lovingly’ suffocates the growth of another.
Though the drawn figures in Director/Writer Éva Katinka Bognár’s film Hugo Bumfeldt may not be aesthetically groundbreaking, the unique POV is noteworthy and the message profound. Relying on no dialogue whatsoever, the film makes brilliant use of sound and music. Benjamin Peter Lukacs and Viktor Lente create an ingenious minimalist soundscape wherein innocuous chirps, warbles, and chit-chat-like sounds remain so unchanged throughout that the longer one is exposed to them the more irritable they become. And so, the same sounds that first create a sense of amusement, soon becomes troubling then cloying and, finally, unbearable. The ability to create an inconspicuous sound design where a soothing sound – by mere repetition – develops into Chinese dripping water torture is no small feat.
But for all its ingenuity, the sound design alone does little to make us see the story as a mirror to our own world. While it successfully nurtures the oppressive mood, it is the music that triggers our emotions – the understated melodies, the haunting chords, the subtly shifting arrangements that force our collective imaginations to connect the dots between the world we are watching and the world we inhabit. Composer Gergely Buttinger is a romantic dressed in minimalism, a hungry wolf flirting with sheepish motifs, an unapologetically emotive poet hidden between tentative phrases.
Forever wary of drawing attention from the film, Buttinger manages to make matter-of-fact narrative resonate with a lifetime’s worth of longing while making cathartic moments seem almost commonplace. In his hands, the film eschews both sentimentality and moralizing. With a sensibility usually reserved for interdisciplinary artists, Buttinger is aware of when to use music as a tool for enhancing the emotional potency of a scene, and when to use it as a means of subverting it so that it avoids becoming preachy or kitsch.
Although, Hugo Bumfeldt would have benefitted from a tighter script with a slightly shorter running time, it is a must-see animation in terms of scope and vision. As a budding auteur, Bognar proves that there are no themes too complex to handle, no subjects so remote that they can’t be seen up close. Her alien child is a mirror to our own cruelty; its victim a reflection of all those we unwittingly abuse. Like the best animations, Hugo Bumfeldt puts us on a distant world in order that we may better see ourselves.