Genius Loci

The second animated short film shown in the package of Oscar-nominated shorts and near-misses this year is Genius Loci, a 16-minute film from France.

I’m not going to pretend to understand this film, but my sense is that it’s not supposed to be understood, at least not in a straightforward, literal, simple way. I mean, my guess is that there are certain core elements that are understandable if you pay close attention and are particularly astute about such things—and I’m sure I failed to pick up on a decent amount of that—but that ultimately there are aspects of it that are intentionally left ambiguous where the viewer is free to interpret them however they please, or not at all.

I think it has something to do with the experiences of an immigrant from Africa—a young woman—living in France. Or at times it seems like it’s about a family of such people or a couple of friends or roommates like that, but I’m pretty sure there’s a central female character that it’s primarily about.

As I say, much is left unexplained and indeed is depicted surreally. For instance, she spills something in her flat or wherever she is, and it bizarrely turns into a bigger and bigger puddle that threatens to flood the whole place.

She goes out and interacts with various people who seem to be friendly toward her more often than not—perhaps friends she has made, perhaps just people trying to be nice to someone they recognize as a newcomer who might be experiencing difficulty finding her way.

There are children and animals that pass through the story—hers?, connected to her more peripherally?, imaginary?, something she shape shifts into?—and generally plenty of hustle and bustle on the streets and in the clubs.

You can try to figure it out as best you can, but I think sooner or later you kind of have to surrender to it, accept that it is much more about mood than about substance, and let yourself be carried away by that mood.

Even though I can’t put my finger on much of anything in terms of the specifics of what this young woman (I think) goes through, what I feel is that it’s somehow overwhelming to her—maybe novel in an exhilarating way to a small degree, but more so overstimulating and confusing in a negative way. Maybe it’s just trying to convey the powerful emotional experience it is for someone to be dropped into what we might think of as culturally a “normal” society, when that society overlaps very little with any culture that that person has ever had any experience with. It’s just that with its surrealism and all, it’s an exaggerated version of that—more like how an alien from outer space, not an alien from Africa, might experience being a newcomer in this social environment.

I have never had more than a modest aptitude for surreal, non-literal, symbolic art, so Genius Loci didn’t connect with me at any deep level. I wouldn’t steer people away from it, though. For some folks I could see this very much being their cup of tea.