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GOCRITIC! Animafest Zagreb 2019

GoCritic! Review: Under the Rib Cage

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- We review a film that did not win any awards at Animafest Zagreb, but many of the audiences and professionals, including the GoCritic! team, found outstanding

The winner of this year’s Grand Competition for Short Films at Animafest Zagreb, as decided by an international jury composed of movie professionals, was Acid Rain by Polish animator Tomek Popakul. The jurors also selected one film each for a special mention, the details of which can be found in our news story here. However, many festivalgoers were surprised that Belgian filmmaker Bruno Tondeur’s Under the Rib Cage, a film which had been universally praised by audiences and many of the professionals, went home emptyhanded.

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For its part, Under the Rib Cage is a profound and extremely creative rendering of an existential story about paranoia and hypochondria. The main protagonist, a young man who works in a corporate environment, leads what we might call a normal life. But when he develops a nasty cough, he naturally turns to the internet to try to identify his symptoms. In just one click his laptop returns millions of results with graphic pictures of ruined organs and ravaged bodies. "Is this diabetes? What could coughing-up blood mean? Am I dying?" - this is when he comes face to face with his paranoia, which follows him throughout the film in the form of a fluffy, pink blob, whose appearance harks back to the cute characters in Disney's Silly Symphonies. Paranoia gradually becomes his best, inseparable friend, who will cherish the man to the point of physical and mental breakdown. It hugs him so tightly that the man cannot breathe. He becomes an isolated freak who sees dangerous viruses and bacteria everywhere: on his bedsheets, on his laptop keyboard, crawling out from under the clothes of people on public transport...

Segments produced using various techniques, including clay and experimental animation, depict the slow transformation of the subject’s healthy body to one that is sick and full of stress. Clay models of his lungs, his heart, and his brain change from normal organs with properly functioning blood cells, as seen, for example, in the seminal 1987 educational animated TV series Unce Upon a Time… Life by Albert Barillé, to rotting flesh hidden beneath the superficial façade of a normal human shell, like in Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling’s Don't Hug Me I'm Scared (2011).

There is nothing that can help the hero - not pills, nor vitamins, nor any other active substances. When one of the capsules dissolves in his body the process, as depicted by Tondeur, resembles abstract art as the white medicine mixes with the more colourful elements of the human anatomy.

Paranoia sets him on the path of self-destruction. He loses his grip on reality, only sobering up when his behaviour scares his girlfriend. He realises that the pink blob is the destroyer of his rational mind and that he has to overcome it by way of a violent battle, which is, in reality, a battle with himself rather than some external force. And such a fight is the fight of a lifetime - made even harder by the constant reinforcement of the most paranoid suspicions owing to the over-availability of both accurate and false information coming from the internet. 

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