Synopsis: Imagine a shop that for generations has sold all the accoutrements for the perfect suicide. This family business prospers in all its bleak misery, until the day it encounters joie de vivre in the shape of younger son, Alan. What will become of The Suicide Shop in the face of Alan’s relentless good cheer, optimism and determination to make the customers smile?
eyelights: the look of the animation. the character designs.
eyesores: the watered-down setting.
“Have you’ve failed at living? Then succeed at dying!”
‘Le Magasin des Suicides’ is a French animated film based on the book by Jean Teulé. A musical comedy, it’s about a family whose store caters to people wishing to end their lives. Filled with all sorts of deadly apparatus, they have a booming business: their city is plagued with unhappiness and suicide. But the Tuvache family’s lives will change with the arrival of Alan, their youngest member.
Honestly, I have no idea how I stumbled on ‘Le Magasin des Suicides’. I seriously can’t recall, even though it wasn’t so long ago. In fact, I don’t even remember which came first: the book or the film. But I do recall making a mental note of reading the book before seeing the picture. After all, it’s always best to go right to the source material – without which the movie wouldn’t exist.
There’s one major problem with doing this of course, as anyone who reads books who have made it to the big screen can attest: the adaptation can make or break the resulting experience. When the adaptation is faithful enough and intelligent, as it was with the ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movie trilogy, it can be a treat. When they’re ill-conceived, such as Ron Howard’s ‘Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas’, it can hurt (physically as well as psychically).
Sometimes you get a film that’s been adapted that’s only vaguely like the original source novel, but that is so brilliant in its own right that fans simply don’t care that they’re not getting a carbon copy of their favourite book on the screen. Take ‘The Shining’ for example: sure, it drew the ire of Stephen King himself, and it was panned at the time, but it’s now widely regarded as a classic.
Sadly, ‘Le Magasin des Suicides’ isn’t nearly as successful. While it retains the central conceit of the original book, it reshapes it to make the resulting film more accessible to general audiences: its humour is lighter, the story isn’t confined to the shop itself, and even the characters are slightly different in look and tone, becoming slightly amorphous (and, presumably, more relatable).
It also strips the film of context: we have no idea why people are so miserable that they’re committing suicide left and right and we don’t know why the Tuvache family is so dedicated to this peculiar business model. In the book we knew that there was an environmental calamity that plagued the globe and that the Tuvache had run this family business dutifully for generations.
The problem is that, in stripping the film of its darker elements, it also strips it of its core satirical intent: uprooted as it is, it has no meaning. In this version, the characters are merely going about their business, leaving us incapable of laughing at their motivations or, as with ‘The Addams Family‘, their misunderstanding of “normal” people. We have no true sense of their reality.
Bereft of any understanding of how deeply committed the family is to their misery (and that of their clients), we simply can’t fully appreciate the significance of the transformation they will undergo with Alan’s arrival. In fact, even Alan is neutered, transformed into a generic cartoon kid so that he may substitute the everyman – he is certainly not nearly as grating as in the book.
In fact, he is so normal that he has a bunch of friends with whom he plays. Because, yes, he goes out to play – whereas in the book he’s once sent away at military camp, but otherwise stays with his family. Here, any excuse is good enough to get them outside the shop: the kids follow clients home to ensure they’ve succeeded, Mishima does house calls, goes to a shrink, …etc.
And yet, the movie is named after the shop. Which they spend little time in. Urgh.
Further to this, it must be noted that the film version is a musical. Thankfully, the songs are short, and not entirely unpalatable, but the original book (which was already relatively brief) has been trimmed down to wedge these songs in and the new, contextually inappropriate, material. What we have here is a watered down, sanitized version tailor-made for general audiences.
At least the animation is pleasing to the eye. Although it’s not Disney/Pixar level stuff, it has a hand-drawn quality to it that’s quite pleasing. I also enjoyed the way that they blend 2D characters with CGI backgrounds. There were a number of nice little touches thrown in, too, such as a poster of ‘Les Zombrés’ on a wall (a spoof of director Patrice Leconte’s own ‘Les Bronzés‘).
But that’s not enough to salvage ‘Le Magasin des Suicides’ in my mind. While it’s hardly terrible by any stretch of the imagination (despite what other reviews might say), it pales in comparison to its forbear – it’s lacks bite, plucking its humour from slapstick grotesquery instead of carefully thought out satire. What should have been a twisted pageant to life, ironically ends up virtually inert.
By trying to make this motion picture more accessible, Leconte nearly committed cinematic suicide.
Post mortem: the only true originality comes during the end credits, which were all tailored to represent various ways of dying. It’s well-worth sticking around for.
Date of viewing: June 13, 2014