CAPSULE: STRINGS (2004)

DIRECTED BY: Anders Rønnow Klarlund

FEATURING: Voices of James McAvoy, Catherine McCormack, , Julian Glover

PLOT: Hal, Crown Prince of a kingdom of marionettes, disguises himself as a commoner to try to uncover his father’s murderer.

Still from Strings (2004)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Strings is essentially a stock prince-grows-to-be-a-man-and-saves-the-kingdom high fantasy tale, but with a twist: everyone in the film is not only a marionette, they know they’re a marionette. The gimmick is used meaningfully, but given the standard-issue narrative, it’s not enough to movie this film from the “offbeat curiosity” into the “weird” column.

COMMENTS: Strings‘ basic plot, which involves an undercover prince, a kingdom in peril, intrigue and betrayal, prophecies, virtuous misunderstood rebels, appeals to the “power of love,” and a big battle at the end, is at the same time a bit confusing (with lots of characters, factions and subplots to keep track of) and overly familiar. That hardly matters, however, because the movie’s real pleasures come from admiring the meticulously constructed puppets as they dance across the boldly-lit diorama sets, and even more from the film’s creation of a complete marionette culture and mythology. The hand carved puppets have an Old World, doll-like charm, and although their faces are all frozen in neutral expressions, they exhibit an unexpected range of expressiveness just by raising or lowering their eyelids or tilting their heads that make them only slightly uncanny. The filmmakers make no attempt to hide the marionettes’ strings—even going so far as to title the movie after the darn things—and this is the most interesting and curious aspect of the  production. A dozen or more strings rise up from each character’s body, disappearing into the heavens above. A breathtaking aerial view illustrates why airplane flight would be impossible in this alternate reality, as we see thousands of strings rising above the moonlit clouds stretching up to infinity, each set connected to an invisible creature walking about the world below. The film explores every aspect of their strung-up existence; even the city gates and prison cells operate according to weird marionette logic. I won’t spoil every single thread, but it was fascinating to see the mystical “birth of a marionette” scene, as the mother brings the carved wooden block of a baby to life by painfully summoning strings to descend from the heavens, then attaching them to the lifeless wooden doll. It’s tough to figure out who this movie is aimed at—it’s too dark and weird for the kiddie matinee crowd, and not quite dark and weird enough for us—but that very singularity of vision and lack of a clear marketing angle gives it cult credibility. In the end, despite the fact that we don’t make much of a connection with the archetypal heroes, despise the stock villains, or feel much investment in the restoration of the kingdom, Strings still manages to be a visually beautiful and imagination-stimulating movie. And it finishes with an unexpectedly touching ceremony that takes the marionettes’ central metaphor, alien as it is, and uses it to tug a little on our heartstrings as well as theirs.

Strings contains a couple of nods to Shakespeare: the main character who seeks to avenge his slain father, the king, while being opposed by a deceitful uncle, bears a passing resemblance to “Hamlet.” Even more obviously, the protagonist who grows from a foolish boy to a competent king is named Prince Hal, just like the star of the “Henry IV” and “Henry V” plays.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Essence of movie’s weirdness lies in its initial conceit… not quite strange enough to appeal to hardcore arthouse auds who savor the work of Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay and the like, but neither is it cutesy enough to cross over to the mainstream.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Teodor.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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