Judge Adam Arseneau is a princess...at least according to his mom.
"I promise to take care of you always."
Princess is an anti-exploitation, pornographic revenge flick of molestation, sexual abuse of minors, vigilantism, and violence. It is in Danish. It is also an animation. Thus, Princess completes the illustrious Triple Crown of Messed Up Movies, a truly prestigious award.
Best that no one tell Park Chan-Wook about Princess, or else he'll start working on a South Korean adaptation that will make everyone in the world cry.
Facts of the Case
Thirty-two-year old clergyman August returns home from years of missionary work after hearing about the death of his sister Christina, who…after going from greatness to the gutter as the famous porn star "The Princess"…has finally died of drug abuse. She has left behind her five-year-old daughter Mia in the care of a prostitute. August visits the brothel to bring Mia home with him and become her guardian.
Burdened by sorrow, guilt, and unspeakable rage after making some horrific discoveries as to how Mia has been treated in his absence, August pledges to undo the damage by erasing every trace of "The Princess." Setting out to avenge his sister's death, he brings Mia along with him on a brutal and violent vendetta.
Juxtaposing magic realism into a Danish animation film about pornography and vigilante violence is like combining the tight rope and lion taming acts at the circus. The audience is going to love it, but talk about a cruel balancing act. Amazingly, Princess, created by animation prodigy Andres Morgenthaler, pulls it all off with panache, crafting a film full of wrenching emotional brutality, sexual perversion, and social criticism. This is not exactly the kind of film one decides to make a cartoon of. Then again, given the thematic nature of Princess, it is entirely probable that this film could not have been made in any other format.
Morgenthaler invites audiences into an ugly, nihilistic world in Princess, one that tauntingly gives way to moments of genuine beauty and childlike wonder. Young Mia, the five-year-old heroine of the film is a heartbreaking character, torn between the innocence of youth and the trauma of a dysfunctional life, until August comes to rescue her. His struggle to fix her—to restore her to the innocence now forever lost—fuels his violent crusade to annihilate every trace of her mother's pornographic career, including those who profited from her exploitation. For a priest, he's breaking quite a few vows.
As the film progresses, August escalates his crusade to purify the memory of his sister, with predictably tragic results. He trades the violence of the pornographic industry, which destroyed the life of his sister, for actual violence, bloodshed, and retribution, all in the hope of saving Mia. Whether this is a particularly beneficial trade-off for the young girl is open to debate. August, a priest who shuns his principles in favor of good old-fashioned anger, tries his best to give Mia a happy life, but he cannot forgive the atrocities committed against her. In her addled child mind, a life of drugs, sex, abuse, and exploitation are normal. August, who had to watch his sister die living exactly this life, simply cannot stand it. He cracks in a way both uncomfortable and extremely satisfying, as we guiltily cheer him on, doling out justice, like an especially vindictive brand of schadenfreude.
The animation style is certainly unique, a mix of vibrant colors, angular likes and unflattering profiles that make everyone look thuggish, slimy, crooked, and grotesque; all except Mia, who is angelic and beautiful in contrast. Live-action home video footage intermixes throughout the film, showing old tapes of August and his sister as a child, offering audiences a flashback explanation as to why she chose the life she did. This ratty and degraded videotape footage contrasts harshly against the sparse and beautiful animation style is no doubt a conscious choice to break down the barrier between the fantastic and the realistic. In animation style, Morgenthaler has a visual aesthetic sharing some stylistic similarities with the early career of Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat), especially in the often grotesque depiction of the human form and sexuality. Princess shows some signs of a film animated on the cheap, with a jerky frame rate (low frames per second) and minimal on-screen movement, but once the film gets rolling, you'll barely notice.
The sheer ugliness of the world is on display here, the predatory nature of the pornographic industry, the destructive and perverting effect on human lives. Princess is plenty violent, with bullets and knife wounds and gushing blood, but these pale in comparison to some of the softer and more troubling sequences, like the reveal of bruises on Mia, or her completely twisted perspective on sexuality. Watching a five-year-old—even an animated one—behave like a prostitute is some seriously troubling cinema. Thankfully, most of the sexual violence is thematic, implied and suggested rather than depicted, or else audiences would struggle with the sheer emotional weight of the film. As it stands, Princess is plenty powerful.
The transfer is good, not great; the low-budget and low frame-rate animation style become most apparent in the angular blocking of black lines, the PAL ghosting and the odd marionette movement style of characters. Colors are vivid without being saturated, with especially sharp yellow tones. For audio, we get both 5.1 and stereo track (in Danish) with English subtitles. The voice acting isn't the best. Admittedly, it's hard to critique a foreign-language track, but the clipped, almost laconic bursts of dialogue from the characters seems awkward, even to foreign ears. The quality of the sound lends to a tinny, compressed presentation—dialogue is clear, but sounds echoing and hollow.
A trailer is included as the film's sole supplemental feature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Princess carries itself as a film with a message, a moral, but your guess is as good as mine as to what it is. Porn is bad? Don't abuse little girls? Those seem a bit too obvious. It's hard to escape the feeling that Princess is a shocking and exploitative narrative without a moral compass, a purpose to the criticism.
A svelte low-budget animation and live-action film, Princess stretches a meager budget to impressive lengths. Artistically, this is an impressive and striking achievement, but the subject matter is extremely unforgiving. Audiences beware: Princess is a brutal ride.
An original vision of a wholly unpleasant story, Princess is worth the
cost of a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Original Trailer
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