(Original post date: 5/1/20)
I’d like to begin this one by talking a bit about the Bechdel Test. Named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, it measures the representation of women in fiction, particularly film. Its typical primary requirement is that the piece tested must include at least two female characters with actual names who converse with each other about something other than a man. For many years this has helped those in the film industry point out and reevaluate the stereotypical depictions of female characters in movies and the resulting negative effects they have on real women. While not without its flaws and criticisms, the Bechdel Test has paved the way for future films to bring audiences stronger, more realistic female characters in order to discourage gender inequality in real life as well as in fiction. I think it’s safe to say that this French animated film passes with every flying color under the sun.
Ever since she was a child, 19th century aristocrat Sacha Chernetsov has idolized her beloved grandfather, Oloukine, who embarked on the unsinkable icebreaker, the Davaï, to fulfill his dream of claiming the North Pole in the name of Russia. He tragically never returned, and the Davaï has remained missing ever since. Nevertheless, Sacha, now a teenager, is proud of her grandfather’s achievements as an explorer. Wandering through his study one night, Sacha stumbles upon his itinerary and is shocked to discover that the crew sent to locate the Davaï had searched in the wrong location! However, Oloukine’s posthumous praise does not sit well with Prince Tomsky, who views the expedition’s apparent failure as an insult to himself and to the empire. The prince uses his influence to not only ruin Sacha’s chances of getting help from the Tsar of Russia, but to disgrace Oloukine’s legacy and the Chernetsov name in high society along with it. Having nothing more to lose now, Sacha determines to find the Davaï herself. With the hard-won help of Captain Lund and his rowdy crew, she must brave the harsh Arctic wilderness to learn the fate of her grandfather’s voyage and restore her family’s honor.
The French title of Long Way North, Tout en haut du monde, literally translates to “At the Very Top of the World.” Its plot was partly inspired by director Rémi Chayé’s reading of Sir Earnest Henry Shackleton, an explorer who attempted to cross the South Pole and who was a major figure in the period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, between the ends of the 19th century and WWI. According to Chayé, in the heart of Shackleton’s exploits of sailing ships, towering glaciers, and stormy seas is a story of human spirit and perseverance, qualities Chayé sought to bring to his film. There was also an underlying desire to bring to new, younger audiences a classic adventure story in the vein of those written by such epic authors as Jack London and Jules Verne.
I think this historical aesthetic is well reflected in the animation style. The entire movie is like a museum oil painting come to life, with the colors being very stark and solid. Backgrounds may seem simplistic at first glance, but can be appreciated as the masterpieces they are when observed as a whole. In a manner highly reminiscent of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack, there is little to no mixing or blending of one color to another. Most colors aren’t separated by any lines, and the lines that do exist for detail’s sake, like for facial features, are seldom black. Moreover, the character designs feel very deliberate in artistic emotional tone. The females and younger men—from the lovely, steadfast Sacha and the burly, but compassionate inn-keeper Olga, to the cunning first mate Larson and the mischievous ship’s apprentice, Katch—have rounder, fuller faces, accentuating their vivacity and openness:
SACHA: (Fervently to her best friend Nadya.) A real daddy’s boy. Who does this Tomsky think he is? If the Davaï was worthless, the Tsar wouldn’t have offered a million roubles to find it.
OLGA: (Confidently to Sacha.) You know, Lund is a good sailor. He can take you to the Davaï. And 30 days is nothing. With the work I’ll be giving you, you won’t get bored!
LARSON: (Smoothly.) Captain Larson, at your service. Can I accompany you somewhere? It’s not very safe here.
SACHA: Maybe you can help me, Captain. I’m looking for a ship to take me to Franz Josef Land.
LARSON: (Curious.) Franz Josef Land? Why would such a pretty girl want to go all the way up north?
KATCH: (To Sacha as they peel potatoes.) Did you really work at the White Bear for a month? (Grins.) And I thought you were a real snob.
The main older males, in contrast, are sharp and angular, complimenting their positions of power and authority; the resilient Oloukine, the severe Count Chernetsov, the pitiless Prince Tomsky, and the brusque Captain Lund all seem to have been chiseled out of stone with personalities to match, ranging from proud and strong to cold and unrelenting:
YOUNG SACHA: (Eagerly.) So, where is the North Pole?
OLOUKINE: (As they both gaze at the snow as if it were the Artic.) On the top of the world. It’s very cold there like a white desert. You have to walk for miles and miles on ice fields, with sleighs and dogs. But it’s so beautiful . . .
COUNT CHERNETSOV: (Letter in hand.) Good news, my dear. Prince Tomsky will be attending the ball. My nomination for the Embassy of Rome is certain. He wouldn’t be coming if I didn’t have the Tsar’s favor.
COUNTESS CHERNETSOV: (Sensibly.) Don’t forget that this is also your daughter’s first ball.
COUNT CHERNETSOV: (Unsmiling.) I know. I hope will be worthy of her rank. She’s been unpredictable lately.
PRINCE TOMSKY: (Refusing to listen to the Count’s plea to stay at the ball.) Enough. We’ll settle this tomorrow. 10 am, the Palace. (With some spiteful humor.) You know, Chernetsov, I wonder if the Tsar can still trust a man who is not master in his own home.
CAPTAIN LUND: (To the crew.) Get in position. We cast off in 15 minutes.
LARSON: (Surprised.) But that’s earlier than planned.
CAPTAIN LUND: (Firmly.) Larson, brother or not, you should still be on time.
LARSON: You could have warned me.
CAPTAIN LUND: The weather is changing. We have to leave!
LARSON: But I was doing some important business.
CAPTAIN LUND: (Fiercely.) I don’t have time for your schemes!
LARSON: (Angrily.) This ship is as much mine as yours! Father gave it to us both.
CAPTAIN LUND: (Cuts him off, unimpressed.) You think that’s enough to make you a captain? Learn how to be a first mate.
Getting back to my original point: to give you an idea why I find Sacha such an admirable female protagonist, let me explain at the same time what she is not. First, she is NOT dissatisfied with her upper-class life or ashamed of her heritage. It’s all well and good for girls to challenge stifling social norms, especially with regards to their futures, but listening to them complain (or sing) about how “tortured” and misunderstood they are beforehand can get real old real fast. Grief and unfulfilled pursuits aside, Sacha still acts according to her station. Though unafraid to speak her mind, she is never moody, selfish, or immature. She is resolute in her beliefs while still remaining dignified and respectful of others, no matter how it may clash with her own wishes.
SACHA: You wanted to see me, Papa?
COUNT CHERNETSOV: Prince Tomsky is honoring us with his presence tonight. Your opening dance will be with him.
SACHA: (Nodding.) Very well.)
PRINCE TOMSKY: (To the Count and Countess.) Charming. (Offers his arm to Sacha.) Young lady.
SACHA: (Accepting his arm politely.) Prince, I’m delighted to be opening the ball with you.
COUNTESS CHERNETSOV: (Sighing to Sacha as she trims her flowers.) I had such hopes for that evening. Your debutante ball. Such a pity.
SACHA: (In dismay.) Mother, forgive me. I didn’t realize.
Second, she is NOT an awkward tomboy. OR a “Mulan” rip-off. Consider how many girls in movies have had to effectively sacrifice their femininity or even their very sex (by means of disguise) in order to be taken seriously by men. Sacha is perfectly comfortable in her own skin. She strives to prove her worth and help the crew—who know exactly who and what she is—for the sake of their mission and their survival, without said mission devolving into some juvenile “battle of the sexes” cliché:
SACHA: (To Briscoe after he tends the badly wounded Lund.) Well?
BRISCOE: (Grave.) He’s in bad shape. And we lost all our penicillin. I don’t know how we’re going to make it.
SACHA: We must find the Davaï! There’s surely medicine on board.
[. . .]
SACHA: (Looking over the maps with Larson.) The only solution is to reach the Davaï by foot. Look, we found their lifeboat here. (Points with a pencil.) They must have left the Davaï and headed south. We need to find their route and head north from that spot.
LARSON: (Skeptical.) We don’t know that for sure. We should wait for another ship to come.
(The two pause as Lund groans in severe pain.)
SACHA: (In a low, anxious voice.) We can’t afford to wait.
Third, she is NOT a dated millennial in a “backwards” era. If you’re going to create an unironically smart, respectable female character for a period piece, realistic or fantastical, at the very least, for Pete’s sake, MAKE THEM FIT THE TIME PERIOD! A confident young woman does not have to sound like some American twenty-year-old socialite from a 90’s chick flick in order for modern girls to relate to her. Sacha’s intelligence and boldness come not from a wise-cracking attitude and a petty contempt for those who would look down on her, but from a genuine thirst for knowledge and a sincere passion for the vocation of geographical exploration:
SACHA: (Pointing to the map accordingly.) So if we follow the navigation chart Oloukine passed by the extreme north of Novaya Zemlya. But then, instead of heading east as was expected through the Kara Sea, he tried his chances going west through the Barents Sea. He must be there, between Franz Josef Land and Spitsbergen, blocked by the ice.
CAPTAIN LUND: So, assuming that your report was written by Oloukine, assuming that he’d thought of another route to get to the Pole, a route that crosses the Barents Sea, what proves that he actually took it?
SACHA: (Earnestly.) He didn’t have the choice. Two years ago, in July, the weather on the Kara was disastrous. I checked. Force 10 winds . . . no ship could sail there. I assure you, Captain, the Davaï has not sunk. (Hits the map with a firm finger.) It’s waiting for you here. With the million roubles promised by the Tsar.
And speaking of fitting the time period, I was surprised at how a certain music choice actually works, considering how obnoxiously jarring it could have been. The soundtrack was composed by Jonathan Morali, front runner of the French indie rock band, Syd Matters, two of whose songs are featured in the film. Despite the contemporary edge, their music has a very introspective sound which compliments the organically emotional highs and lows Sacha experiences without being a distraction to either the historical setting or the pragmatic tone. But undoubtedly the film’s symphonic highlights occur for me during the silent moments within the heart of the Arctic: a cello solo – slow, soft, and heartbreaking – over the awe-inspiring sounds of rumbling glaciers, shifting ice fields, and mournful winds, to a visual backdrop of the purest white as magnificent as it is desolate.
As Long Way North is a drama as well as an action-adventure, its music is equally subdued and somber, moods which Morali pulls off beautifully. And like the aforementioned painting to which I made a comparison, here is a powerful representation of humanity humbled before the devastating forces of nature that could easily be pondered for hours . . . or eternity.
With elegantly solid animation to compliment an exciting and poignant story with a healthy appreciation for nature’s wonders and dangers, Long Way North is a cinematic love letter to the epic exploration adventures of old. But as much as it is a throwback to the past, it also offers a refreshingly different kind of heroine for contemporary young audiences to look up to: a sensitive and sensible young woman and a brave and honorable human being, rather than an exasperating wide-eyed idealist or a walking “man with boobs” trope. In all honesty, I believe its feminist message is all the stronger for focusing less on lofty ideas of girl power and more on the strength of the human spirit, a theme much more inclusive and universal, because of what real use are gender labels when you’re aiming for the top of the world?
Credits: All images, audio, and links belong to their respective owners; no copyright infringement is intended.
“The Call” — Briand Morrison and Roxann Berglund
“Jupiter One” – Riot
“Running Waters” by Audionautix is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
All other sound clips are from the English dub of Long Way North (produced by Sacrebleu Productions, Maybe Movies, France 3 Cinema, 2 Minutes, and Nørlum; distributed by Shout! Factory).
Songs by Syd Matters:
“To All of You”
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