Sunday 22 June 2014

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet

Perpetual Motion Picture

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet
2013 France/Canada
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Playing at UK cinemas now.

You know, there are a few directors out there who, when you look at any of their work from any part of their career, instantly prove without even trying, that the auteur theory is a legitimate and important consideration when it comes to critical contemplation of the art of film.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet is just such a director.

I don’t care if he hires the same crew every time he makes a film (I suspect not) but he always manages to push, pull and cajole his workforce to make a work of art which is quintessentially, like it or not, a Jeunet film. I’d defy anyone familiar with some of his prior work, to look at his latest feature, The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, or any of his features for that matter, and not recognise his celluloid fingerprints written large for everyone to see.

Some directors are harder to decode, perhaps, and some allow their soldiers to shine through with their own little quirks as part of their own authorship to a piece, but I’m beginning to subscribe to the auteur theory more and more as I see cinema in all its different forms pass through my head at 24 frames per second, year after year. Some directors, like Jeunet, are stronger at being less shy about their particular visual and, in Jeunet’s case, aural foibles and it all makes for a strong legacy of cinematic culture which will ultimately be destroyed some day when our tiny and unimportant world comes to its natural, or more likely unnatural, end.

Jeunet’s latest film is probably one of my least favourites of his but... guess what? It’s still absolutely wonderful, thoroughly entertaining and shines like a beacon to his genius, leaving other films on the current cinematic landscape seeming impoverished and suffering from some kind of stylistic malnutrition compared to the director's characteristic richness and vivid creativity on display in The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. It doesn’t matter if I rank it lower than the majority of his other master works because, all said and done, I still found it thoroughly entertaining and engaging both in terms of the artistry with which it tells the story and, also, emotionally... it does get quite moving in a couple of places.

It doesn’t spoil things to give away some of the plot details of this movie, ones you could probably already pick up from the pre-publicity machine as it springs in to action around this release although, it has to be said, I didn’t even know this film had been made until I saw it was playing at the Haymarket this weekend... surely a film by one of the most important directors of our time needs a little more of a publicity push than this? But, anyway, as I was about to say...

T.S Spivet, played brilliantly by newcomer (to movies) Kyle Catlett, is a ten year old boy living on a farm with his Western obsessed father, played by Callum Keith Rennie (best remembered by me as one of the key cylon templates in the Battlestar Galactica reboot), his entomologist mother, played quite wonderfully and assuredly by Helena Bonham Carter, his sister (Niamh Wilson) and the shadow of his dead twin brother, Layton (Jakob Davies), who died in a “firearms accident” involving T.S in a barn. The aforementioned main protagonist, T.S, accepts the challenge he reads into a particularly stirring lecture on science and proceeds to invent, for all intents and purposes, a perpetual motion machine in the form of a “magnet wheel”... although, as he points out to people a few times, it’s not really perpetual motion generator as it will stop every 450 years or so and you will have to replace the magnets to get it going again... entropy increases, but very slowly in this case, it would seem. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington want to give Spivet an award, so he runs away from home to accept said award and.... the film tells of his preparations and adventures leading up to his acceptance of the award and accompanying fame.

The film is apparently based on the book The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen and, regrettably, I can’t tell you how well the film works in terms of its adaptation of this book since I haven’t read it myself. The book does, however, seem to have a reputation for being equally rich in its use of visual imagery so I suspect there must have been some kind of common ground if Jeunet decided to make a film of it.

The film is the first to be shot with a new kind of 3D camera (the Arri Alexa M, if that means anything to my more technically inclined readers) and I have to say that, although I’m not much impressed with the majority of the 3D element in film of the latest batch of 3D movies (I think the ones in the 1950s worked better and were certainly more honest in their blatant use of the technique for it’s gimmick value), I have to say that the 3D in this movie is absolutely superb. Not least of all because the usual brightness of Jeunet’s colour palette coupled with the 3D effect is completetly beautiful but, more than that, because Jeunet’s oft used technique of superimposing vignettes onto the main image to explain points in the narrative, often plucked straight out of the head of one of the main protagonists, is pushed even more to the fore when projected in 3D. In fact, if you get a choice between seeing a 3D and 2D version of this one I would urge you, in this particular instance, to go see it in 3D because the director has pretty much specifically designed it to be seen as such, even going as far as to use the analogy of an old 3D viewmaster in the wonderfully designed end credits.

One of the director’s other key signatures, the use of sound to illustrate or give audio clues to the visual landscape, is also very evident in The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. For instance, when we see numerous species of insects in Helena Bonham Carter’s bug collection, we hear the buzzing and general sounds of the insect world coming through on the audio mix, which probably goes in at an entirely unconscious level for most people when looking at stuff like this. That does nothing to negate the technique's potency at pushing an idea, of course. And, perhaps not a key signature, in itself, but the inclusion of one of the directors regular collaborators, Dominique Pinon in a small but key role, is another little but effective addition to the general Jeunet-ness of the film, if you will permit me the indulgence of describing it as such.

So there you have it, a lesser one of the director’s works for this particular movie goer but, certainly, a whole lot better than most of the other movies playing in cinemas this year so far. I didn’t like the musical score composed by Denis Sanacore so much on this one, in all honesty, but only because it didn’t appeal to me aesthetically... its does its job well and is appropriate to the tone of the movie, for sure. The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is yet another example of Jean-Pierre Jeunet giving us a visually complex, candy confection of a movie which, frankly, any fan of the art and science of the motion picture should dash along and swallow up before it dissappears from cinemas with as little fanfare as it arrived. There is much to be recommended in films like this... and we don’t get the opportunity to see enough of them.


  1. Wonderful review! I'm a pretty big Jeunet fan as well so I'm happy to hear this is an enjoyable entry into his body of work and maintains the "Jeunet-ness" I love. At the moment I don't even know if this will get a US release but I hope I get to see it in theaters since that 3D technique sounds interesting!

  2. Hi there Alex,

    Yeah, I hope you get to see it in theatres too, purely for the selfish reason that I wanna read your review of it. ;-)

    Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. I know you are a busy person.

    All the best,


    Folks, if you're reading this comments section then know that Alex, the artist formerly known as filmforager, has a really great website where she reviews art and movies. Check her stuff out when you get some time here because it's wonderful.

    1. Oh jeez you're too kind, thanks as always for the promotion!