A melancholy woman departs by train but the journey is anything but morose. This silent short animated film uses archetypes and symbols to take us along on the Madame’s excursion.
This is my contribution to the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and Speakeasy. Be sure to read the other posts! (I know I’m a bit early but my cold has absolutely caused havoc in my schedule, so please forgive.)
Take the midnight train going anywhere
The theatrical animated short is still alive and well, found at the start of Pixar films and the works of other animation giants, but it is no longer ever-present. This is a pity because from the priciest computer-generated animation to the simplest independent puppetry, the animated short continues to delight.
Madame Tutli-Putli is one of those delights. Beautiful and strange, it tells a complicated and highly symbolic story without any spoken dialogue. It was nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 2008 Academy Awards and while it didn’t bring home the big prize, we can take comfort in the fact that the winner, the flashier Peter and the Wolf, also was dialogue-free.
Produced by the National Film Board of Canada and the brainchild of Canadian filmmakers Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, Madame Tutli-Putli combines stop motion animation with computer animation; the puppets have human eyes grafted onto them, which makes for a unique look as well as a way for us to more deeply empathize with these artificial creatures. Visual effects artist Jason Walker deserves kudos for this simultaneously unnerving and endearing touch.
(By the way, whenever I review a modern silent film without intertitles, I invariably get somebody wishing to debate as to whether the film is in fact silent. As mentioned before, the use of music, synchronized sound effects and other audible flourishes does not preclude this film from being considered silent. Silent films often featured sound effects and some were even narrated. What makes a film truly silent is a lack of audible, decipherable dialogue, which is replaced by skillful pantomime. It is not the use of title cards.)
The short opens with a woman waiting for a train, an entire home’s worth of possessions stacked up behind her. While the train is modern, Madame Tutli-Putli is a throwback to the past. Her cloche hat, pearls, stockings, gloves, curtain rod, gramophone all give her away.
The train compartment is occupied by a weird kid, his grandfather, a pair of chess players who seem to have been smuggled aboard in their own suitcases and a creepy tennis player. (Lavis and Szczerbowski were heavily influenced by Carl Jung’s archetypes, the idea that all humans possess shared transpersonal elements that can be universally recognized. Whether or not you hold to Jung, I think we can all agree that the creepy guy on a train has existed in every culture since the invention of rail travel.)
The train stops in the middle of the night and—this is where I think most disagreements will start. I read everything from the first night scene onward as a vision, hallucination, dream based on Madame’s fears. She focuses on a sign warning passengers to beware of thieves and sure enough, the train is invaded by dirty bandits. (Quite literal, they leave tarry footprints on the carpet, something you can be sure the tidy Madame would not appreciate.) They steal the luggage, a kidney (!), everything right down to Madame’s writing paper and umbrella.
The detail that makes me believe that this is a dream is small but significant: Madame’s pearls are untouched. Perhaps the thieves did not find them valuable but how valuable is a small sheaf of writing paper?
In any case, real or dreamt, the danger is enough to send Madame racing through the train, terrified of something she cannot identify. Will she escape the danger? Or is the danger beside the point?
If I make this film sound heavy, let me assure you that it flows quite smoothly and never feels oppressive or slow. In fact, I dare say that few films have captured the feeling of literal travel (paralleled by a more metaphysical journey later) as well as Madame Tutli-Putli.
It’s all a tidy collection of vignettes beautifully animated. The eyes are extremely effective, of course, but the puppet design is also excellent. On first viewing, it is not even obvious that the puppets have inanimate faces. The eyes help, of course, but we must also give credit to the clever incorporation of the Kuleshov effect. (Fun Fact: Ivan Mosjoukine was the original actor used in the experiment. Most footage you see of this experiment does NOT feature Mosjoukine but is labeled as him anyway. Sigh.)
This film makes the most of its brisk running time of less than twenty minutes and builds a fascinating and dangerous world out of the familiar, the old and the new. The gestures and pantomime would not be out of place in a Charlie Chaplin film (the directors cite his Tramp character as a model for Madame) and I do not give that compliment often. I also detected hints of Lillian Gish, which would jibe with the desire to make Madame vulnerable.
It took years to complete this film but the finished product is of such quality that all I can say is that it was worth the work.
What does it mean?
According to the very scientific method called Checking the Google Autocorrect, the top question about Madame Tutli-Putli is just what it all means.
In an interview with Michael Guillen, Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski share that their influences included observations of the world around them (including a dead insect inside a new light fixture), Jungian archetypes, interviews with passengers and staff on overnight trains, as well as other historical and cultural odds and ends. (The duo met in college, both were studying Near East religions.)
Madame herself has been described by her creators as a moth, a deer, a woman from another epoch and a Chaplin-esque figure of pathos.
So, yeah, a lot going on here.
Ironically, the image that sparked the film’s creation (a woman waiting for a train, weighed down by her worldly possessions) is one of the more obvious visual metaphors and is less satisfying for it. The rest of the picture is a tangled web of eclectic imagery, emotions and events. When dealing with symbolism, I am a very tough audience. Those symbols had darn well better not be juvenile, obvious or on the nose but I also don’t like films that disappear into their own navel. In short, don’t waste my time. If you’re going to do it, do it well or don’t bother.
Madame Tutli-Putli hits the Goldilocks target for me. It’s complicated enough to allow for satisfying rumination but it also does not smack us over the head with self-proclaimed brilliance. It just exists as it is and I appreciated that.
That being said, with heavily symbolic films I feel that personal interpretation equals and even trumps the creator’s original concept. (Even with directors like Eisenstein who documented the meaning of pretty much everything in their work.) This is how films become personal and deeply touch audiences who may be used to passively receiving information. If modern mass entertainment suffers from anything, it is an unwillingness to allow its audience to guess or fill in the blanks for themselves. Any tiny mystery will be explained in the prequel trilogy and tie-in novels. Give us room to think and imagine, please.
Because of this, wordless cinema is the ideal medium for such symbolism. One of the great pleasures of silent cinema is the way that it pulls its audience into a surreal twilight realm in which they receive visual information but must add their own interpretation to complete the picture. Silent dramas can be exhausting to newcomers for this reason: we are simply not used to exercising our brains in such a manner.
I take the film as the story of a mannered, repressed woman from another time finally embracing instinct and abandoning the trappings of a dead civilization that has ossified around her. I’m sure every other viewer has a unique perspective all their own.
Madame Tutli-Putli is an animated marvel and demonstrates a deep understanding of the art of pantomime (all credit to Laurie Maher for her excellent work as Madame’s model and eyes). It’s a moody, zippy film that makes the most of its short running time to create an intriguing atmosphere. The film is a rare example of a modern offering that succeeds in recapturing the lost visual language of wordless movies.
Where can I see it?
The National Film Board of Canada has made the film available for free streaming on their site but I’m not sure how many regions of the world will be able to view it. If you want a more physical way to watch, Madame Tutli-Putli has been released as a standalone disc (with making-of featurettes) and as part of the region 2 Animation Express set.
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Hi! Interesting short. It would not allow me to copy from their Canadian site but wanted $3.95 for a Home License. However it was on You Tube at the same length. Many years ago the NFBofCanada had a box set of their shorts which I got with many by Scottish Migrant to Canada, Len Lye.
That’s interesting, it’s free in the U.S. I wonder if their YouTube channel will work everywhere. Only one way to find out!
Thanks for the availability feedback. Would you mind sharing where in the world you are? I would like to have an idea of the assorted licensing restrictions for this short.
Here’s the YouTube link for NFB’s official channel release of Madame Tutli-Putli:
Thanks for the reply. I am in Australia and I am never surprised at restrictions to material. Sometimes the BFI and BBC Player allows me to copy material but for nearly a year now the BFI material going back to 1900 or thereabouts has been restricted to me and my special software won’t pick it up. Some BBC radio shows I can get to copy. The odd pop song from the 1950-60s that a friend sends out to people on his two music forums comes up with Unavailable, Sorry about that from You Tube so I go back to You Tube with the title and find any amount of other links people have placed there that will download the same song for me. A lot of silly restrictions if you ask me.
Thanks for sharing! Yeah, you won’t get any arguments from me there. Restricting access to already obscure material is so counterproductive.
They get nothing out of it. Even stuff donated to archives can have restrictions placed on it y the donors and thus rots in storage and they are reluctant to do any restoration on material with such restrictions. We can get downloads off You Tube of shorts made by our version of the NFBofC but try and get old radio show the Archives have and there is no hope and they stopped issuing CDs of some many years ago. If you have by chance a radio disc or tape and put it on your site, no matter where you are domiciled, they find out and issue threats from their legal firm. Any amount of US, South African and old BBC radio material is available on CD from US people who offer radio shows. In many cases the producers of those shows have saved little back from those pre-1980 days but it is a little different now and they look to collectors to locate material that fell in their hands. Reel to reel tapes in a closet can yield lots of gems if not faded off.
From a film prospective, Warner Bros has lost a lot of because the owners of the company prior to the current ownership came down hard of people owning anything or borrowing stuff and then refusing to return the loaned footage claiming it as their property in the first place. Put a lot of serious collectors off for life. Then what happens? They pass on and their family clears everything out to the city dump. Heard of it so many7 times in my lifetime.
I’d choose the Animation Express DVD option, assuming you have a multi region player (which I’m sure as a film nut you do have). It contains 26 excellent animated NFB/ONF films. “Sleeping Betty” & “Madame Tuttli-Puttli” are favourites, but it’s hard to decide in such bounty.
Yes, it definitely seems like a bargain.
“If modern mass entertainment suffers from anything, it is an unwillingness to allow its audience to guess or fill in the blanks for themselves. Any tiny mystery will be explained in the prequel trilogy and tie-in novels. Give us room to think and imagine, please.”
This is so true, my most common complain about modern movies.
I even wonder, whether good art needs restrictions like censorship or the lack of sound? Does the possibility to show and say everything make the audience so lazy that they cannot be trusted at all? Was the cinema audience better 90 years ago?
In addition to silents, I’m a fan of Russian literature, whose excellence has sometimes been explained by the combination of censorship and the need to discuss difficult problems through literature.
That’s definitely an interesting topic. While I don’t support censorship, it does seem that filmmakers flourish when they need to be clever. Today, we are not only shown everything in the realm of sex, violence and swearing, we are also seeing major blockbusters heading into three-hour territory. A bit more Lubitsch would be welcome; he was a grownup but never coarse or vulgar and he managed to say what he needed to say without a bloated runtime.
Our entertainment moguls have gotten it into their heads that killing off characters and using big boy poo-poo words are marks of sophistication. They seem more in line with little boys playing in the sandbox. True sophistication in film is the confidence to not show everything.
This is a haunting and dazzling film, and I would never have seen it if you hadn’t chosen it for the blogathon. (So thank you for that.) While watching it, I was frantically thinking, “What does this mean?” and toying with everything from death to madness to societal commentary. But, in the end, I just accepted it as the experience it is.
The animation and effects are stunning. Those eyes! Even her movements, at times, are fluttery and feminine, echoing the insect. They’re so fluid! Truly remarkable.
Speaking for myself, I agree silent films are a tougher watch because I’m not used to exercising my brain in that way. But this winter, I’ve been watching lots and lots of silent shorts and loving them. I mean REALLY loving them, not just appreciating them. (When I started watching them on mute, it opened a whole new world to me.)
Anyway, all that to say: Thank you for joining the blogathon, and for your relentless pursuit to examine and document silent film.
So glad you enjoyed it too! And thanks so much for hosting and giving me an excuse to cover it on the site. 😀
Yes, silent shorts are so magical, just amazing little vignettes.
Never underestimate the National Film Board. They’ll always surprise and impress.
They certainly hit the jackpot this time 🙂
I’ve had one of those scholarly papers from ‘Journal of Victorian Studies’ sitting among my downloads for months unread; your review compels me to read it.
It addresses Victorian era fears of the unpredictable dangers of railway travel. Mme Tutli-Putli certainly appears subject to those fears. The stopped train in the middle of nowhere in darkest night would scare anyone.
This piece covers some aspects:
Thanks for the link! In an interview with the film’s directors, they stated that they thought the most unnerving scene of the film would be when the train rushed ahead at a terrifying speed and were surprised to find that it was the stillness that was most frightening.
I had never heard of this film, but you make it sound like a fascinating one! I’ll check the NFB website! Thanks so much for this interesting reflexion and review
It’s definitely a great one!
What a great choice— this is a remarkable film, the animation alone is completely mesmerizing, plus lots to unpack about burdens and rebirth. As you say, if only more movies could all be this clever, artful and efficient. Always enjoy having you join in these blogathons, thank you!
Thanks so much for hosting! Yes, this film is so beautiful in so many ways.
Really liked his review. Honestly we couldn’t have said it better ourselves, and indeed haven’t. We tip our hat—
Thanks so much for stopping by! Absolutely amazing work and I’m so glad you enjoyed the review!
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