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  • Reviewed from BFI London Film Festival 2021 

In Europe, the twin triumphs of Persepolis (2007) and Waltz with Bashir (2008) ushered in a wave of animated features about war, genocide and refugees. Recent films have probed these subjects in all their aspects, from the moral murk of the Yugoslav Wars in Chris the Swiss (2018) to the suffering of Spanish refugees in a 1930s French internment camp in Josep (2020).

French director Florence Miailhe conceived refugee drama The Crossing in 2006, before this genre really took off – and indeed before the migrant crisis in Europe reached its brutal crescendo in the last decade. And so, her film, released last month in France, has turned out more topical than it might have been, but also less novel.

The Crossing follows 13-year-old Kyona and her brother Adriel as they flee ethnic cleansing in their country. Their parents missing, they must negotiate the dangers of the road alone, evading soldiers and human traffickers as they search for a safe zone. Traumatised refugees they meet on their way are determined to forget their pasts: “Before is dead,” one tells Kyona. But she is a committed witness, obsessively drawing the people and places she encounters in her sketchbook. The film itself is her ultimate act of remembrance: she narrates it from the vantage of old age.

The film we’re watching not a straight account of Kyona’s journey, but a tale filtered through a child’s imagination and an elderly woman’s memory. The film mixes realist drama with fabular, mythical elements. Miailhe has often drawn on legends in her short films; The Crossing, her first feature, sometimes plays like a fairytale. The time period is ambiguous and the countries the children pass through are fictional (although they have a touch of the Balkan). This is a world in which teardrops morph into pearls and soldiers are spooked by witches. At times I was reminded of the Charles Perrault tale Hop-o’-My-Thumb, at others of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

The Crossing (2021)
The Crossing (2021)
© Courtesy of London Film Festival

Miailhe has chosen a striking technique to tell her story. The film is animated with oil paint on glass, a method the director has used in her shorts (but which is so laborious that it has barely, if ever, been applied to a feature). The result is thick lines and bold colours; the style is not suited to fine details and subtle gestures. This approach works when the mood is at its most dreamlike – or nightmarish – and we can take the characters as fairytale archetypes: embodiments of good and bad, hope and fear.

The film is weaker when it reaches for psychological complexity. Elements of betrayal, revenge and romantic jealousy are crammed into the final act. Here, the stilted animation becomes jarring, and things are made worse by mannered voice acting (in French) of the kind that undermines so many animated films. The characters never feel flatter than when the script, by Miailhe and longtime collaborator Marie Desplechin, tries to give them depth.

Ultimately, The Crossing never really picks up momentum. An interesting tension is set up between the personalities of Adriel, who pragmatically adapts to circumstances, and Kyona, who strives to keep her integrity – but this idea is abandoned halfway through. The children soon stop looking for their parents and advance thereafter from place to place, sometimes quite passively, while subplots interfere with their focus on crossing the border to safety. For all its beguiling moments, the film doesn’t cohere as a drama, and falls short of the best of its genre.

30 essential books about animation

BFI curator and animation fan Jez Stewart shares his personal reading list of 30 recommended books on the art and craft of animation.

By Jez Stewart

30 essential books about animation