Of the thousands of pictures released around the world in a given year, maybe a few tens of them appear as complete creations of a singularly identifiable artist. Visuals can often look much the same, and stories tend to be inspired by the same set of stories. Jean Pierre Jeunet is one of those filmmakers with a very identifiable kind of film artistry. His films are equally colorful and drab, playful and serious, charming and ultra-quirky – and up until I saw Liza The Fox Fairy (crazily of the mind of a first-time feature length director, Karoly Ujj Maszaros) I would have said almost completely unique to himself. While Liza may feel akin to a Jeunet film in its art direction and charm mixed with a whimsical, dark humor it would feel a complete disservice to Maszaros to claim that the film channels another artist. It does not, but it’s wholly exciting to think there are two filmmakers alive who succeed at making this kind of picture.
The story draws an inspiration of an Eastern fairy tale about a forest being destined to live their entire life without a companion. Anyone who comes into contact with a fox-fairy and is seduced by their charm is to immediately die. Liza (the effortlessly Tautou-esque Monika Balsai) is an unassuming, innocent and naive home nurse to an elderly woman in need of constant care. Liza’s whole world exists within that flat and her only experience with the rest of the world is in a book given to her by the elderly woman, which she re-reads over and over and focuses solely on the excerpt of the female heroine finding her true love in the moment of her 30th birthday at a Mekka Burger (what looks to be the Hungarian version of McDonald’s, but hopefully more satirized if even a real establishment at all). The only other form of friendship Liza has is in the presence of the ghost of deceased former 50’s pop singer Tomy Tani, who first appeared in the flat six years ago. Tomy doesn’t speak, he just lip-syncs and performs his own songs, singing and dancing along with Liza all the live long day (in between cleaning out bed pans and such).
What Liza doesn’t realize about Tomy is that he is death incarnate, and has fallen head-over-heels in love with her. It’s on her 30th birthday that he puts his plan to action of getting her to believe that she is a cursed fox-fairy by killing every man she attempts to spark a relationship with. The plan is seen out wonderfully to morbid perfection, until Liza gains the affection of a local police detective – assigned to the case of Liza’s recently deceased employer first, and then each subsequent curiously ambiguous death of every man in Liza’s life since. The detective is proving to be Death’s most elusive target, and might be the singular person in Liza’s life to break the curse of the fox-fairy.
Rarely has grisly death been packaged in such adorable wrapping. It’s morbid and sometimes gross, but without being particularly demented, and that’s a difficult balance to acquire. It’s not so simple to make the act of murder extend beyond funny without exaggeration. It isn’t funny how the men die (like it would be in a Final Destination film), but the idea of many men dying in succession increasingly strikes the funny bone. However, the humor comes most in the form of the unconditional affections of Detective Zoltan (Szabolcs Bede Fazekas doing Buster Keaton proud with an admirable stone-face throughout) towards Liza.
In great naivete, Liza seeks out questionable mates being completely oblivious to her own adorable innocence and girl-next-door physical features, she certainly scrapes the bottom of the most unattractive single-male barrel. However, in the detective there is a man too shy to make his growing feelings known, but it’s obvious he will go through great lengths to please her without expectation of recourse – and it’s through his persistence to please her that he foils Tomy’s every attempt to kill him out of sheer determination to simply not die. He doesn’t maneuver around death via luck – his head catches fire, he falls backward and cracks his skull, he gets electrocuted, and numerous other ill-fates befall him – yet he simply just will not die, as if it were meant to be no matter how many vindictive Asian pop-stars of the past do their best to end Zoltan’s life.
Few films contain the level of charm found in Liza the Fox-Fairy and most of them don’t contain even a small percentage of the number of deaths that occur in the picture. This film hits all the notes of a crowd-pleaser, given the crowd has a heart, funny-bone, appreciates color and is open to the idea of an Asian Elvis Presley-esque ghost embodying Death and killing every man on the planet for the sake of love – with only Buster Keaton standing in his path. No, those people do not appear in this film (this is Hungary, not Hollywood), but I doubt any of them could have done any better.
The Upside: Charm and adorableness in excess, vibrant colors, clever concept, more clever execution, drop-dead funny (pun intended), romantic, and what has to be the catchiest soundtrack of the festival.
The Downside: It ends. Hopefully it gets picked up for U.S. distribution, as it would be a crime for me to never be able to see this again.