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Le Tableau and the World of a Painting

Tableau Painted Man

My favorite parts of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) are those moments that lay out and define the parameters of the Toon world. They tell us what is physically possible and socially conventional for the Toons, beings whose corporeality is unthinkable and whose autonomy is questionable. These moments can be revealed in grand spectacles, like the opening sequence– a “live-action” shooting of a cartoon in which all conceptions of Euclidean space are thrown out the window. They can also be revealed as big punchlines, playing on the social expectations of the genres these cartoons emerge from, like when we learn that, for Toons, a lurid extramarital affair can turn out to be a rousing game of patty cake. Or, these moments are revealed in subtle, clever gestures, like when the detective, at a Toon-staffed saloon, orders a scotch “on the rocks,” and then, remembering where he is, yells “I mean ice!” Toons, we intuit from the joke, tend to literalize our metaphors because they can, and the sheer capability of exploding human conventions, of showing us how arbitrary they are, is funny (at least to them).

Handcuffs, we discover, don't work on Roger Rabbit (a fact he can only reveal at the funniest possible moment).

These moments are interesting because they imagine how our artistic creations, still bound by conventions and the limitations of their medium (in this case, children’s cartoons from the Golden Age of American animation), might live autonomously. But these moments, I feel, simply provide a gimmick, a backdrop to a familiar plot-heavy film noir, albeit with a smart, but flawed, allegory for midcentury American race relations. If the majority of the film follows a set of narrative possibilities resulting from the imagination of sentient cartoon figures living and working in show business, I was always more curious about the particular nature of the Toon world’s difference from the real world rather than the dramatic consequences of that difference. That being said, Jean-Francois Laguionie’s Le Tableau (2011) seems to me the film I wanted Roger Rabbit to be. An animated children’s film about the social conflict and existential crises of painted figures living inside an artist’s paintings, Le Tableau never lets go of its interest in the myriad possibilities of its ontologically separate worlds–that is, the worlds within the paintings and the real world outside them. The film seems to be genuinely concerned with how we experience different artistic media–paintings, photographs, films, digital and hand-drawn animation–and persists in its imagination of what constitutes the worlds contained therein. Le Tableau tells the story of the hierarchical conflict between three different groups of painted figures[1] that live inside a painting: the toupins (tout peint= totally-painted), the pafini (pas fini=Unfinished, i.e. not completely painted) and the reufs (rough sketches). The reufs, whose delicate bodies consist of loose, rough lines and splotches of beige, are essentially enslaved by the toupins, while the pafini–some of whom can nearly pass as toupins–are considered less-than; they are refused entry into the aristocratic world of the toupins, who stand around at fancy cocktail parties, taking epicurean delight in the colorful exteriors with which they’re adorned (or rather, constitutive of).

From left to right: toupin, pafini, reuf, toupin.

In expected Romeo-and-Juliet fashion, a toupin and pafini have fallen in love; the pafini is imprisoned for the transgression and the toupin becomes a fugitive, traversing the elaborate worlds inside and outside an array of paintings. As an allegory on racial oppression or class conflict, Le Tableau has little to offer, especially in relation to the more nuanced Roger Rabbit. Culminating in the discovery that painted figures can indeed paint themselves however they wish, thereby eradicating the systemic privilege exploited by the toupins, Le Tableau is more or less a sweet but uncomplicated parable about self-making. While this isn’t so much the “be yourself” dictum of so many of its Pixar contemporaries, but rather a “paint/make yourself” alternative, it’s still a fairy tale ending devoid of any revolutionary politics; the essentialist standard set by the reigning toupins–that to be a fully rendered subject, one must be fully rendered aesthetically –is not upended but reaffirmed by the conclusion. But I’m convinced that this somewhat conservative narrative trajectory–i.e. egalitarianism via assimilation rather than revolution– isn’t the film’s point. Unlike Roger Rabbit, in which the differences between worlds is the backdrop for a film noir narrative about the Great American streetcar scandal and an allegory for America’s troubled racial history, Le Tableau seems to be about the experience of painting in relation to the other arts, about what it might mean to animate a static world, about how paintings, photographs, and films differently indicate their respective states of being and the process of their making. In its very imagination of a world within a painting (a conceit that isn’t entirely new; see this impressive sequence from Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)), the film unravels our intuitive distinction between the worlds that painting and photography respectively produce. Le Tableau begins by showing us the actual framed painting that we will soon enter–a two dimensional picture whose particular color palette, pictorial style, and human figures provide the raw aesthetic material for an elaborate three-dimensional world–but it is only shown for a split second before we move forward, the frame becoming a window and the painting itself becoming a view of a world instead of a world unto itself. The painting is thus no longer complete and present, no longer totally there and open to us, and as such, it ceases to be a painting. It seems to me that this aesthetic violation–i.e. obliterating the painting as a static, delimited surface by entering it–is less an arbitrary vehicle for fantasy (i.e. the penetrable canvas as wardrobe to Narnia) and more so a confrontation with the kind of thing a painting is and how a painting comes to be. After all, once we are in the inhabitable world of the painting, the social conflict between the differently painted figures points us to the reality of artistic process rather than completed product–i.e. that the painter roughly sketches figures and discards them, that what is perceivable in the painting may only be the final product with its own discarded, or at least less public, material history. A particular scene in the film further emphasizes this point: two painted figures, having escaped from the worlds of their respective paintings and entering the material world of the painter’s studio, stumble upon a back room filled with the painter’s discarded canvases, many of them defaced or pierced with planks of wood. One of the figures muses, “He [the Painter] can destroy us?,” while the other concludes “At least this means he really exists.” The figures’ traumatic discovery of life’s absurdity coincides with a discovery of their maker’s artistic process–i.e. the materiality of canvas and wood, the labor of trial and error. Similarly, consider the scene when the fugitive figures reach the end of their painted world, and Lola, a pafini, leaps through the permeable inside-surface of the canvas and into the artist’s wood-paneled studio, landing on a hanging picture frame below. As she walks along what is to her a thin wooden plank, the picture frame beneath her begins to teeter from her weight and crashes to the ground; the shock, here, comes from discovering both the material heft of the painting as object and the fact that these painted figures have themselves become material objects with density and extension.

Lola leaps through the canvas.

What lends the characters a sense of three-dimensionality is perhaps the film’s greatest irony, that these “painted” figures are products of 3D computer-generated imagery that is made to look hand-drawn–and conspicuously so. It’s an irony that, perhaps, may not be all that apparent. One reviewer, calling the film “the latest offshore animation to show to kids burned out on computer-generated Hollywood toons,” seems to identify it wrongly as predominantly hand-drawn, creating a specious polarity between old animation and new, as if the use of CGI eschews the hand of the artist, or conversely, something traditionally “hand-drawn” like Beauty and the Beast didn’t employ CGI. But it’s an irony that I think the film cleverly acknowledges, for one gets the feeling that, when these figures cross over from the painted to the “real” realms, they share something in common with the photorealistic textured surfaces of the painter’s studio; it’s for this reason that they never quite feel at home inside their respective paintings, whose backgrounds are composed more or less of flat, two-dimensional planes layered on top of each other. Perhaps this fact is most clearly acknowledged when we see the visualized dreams of one of the characters: transforming into a vaguely outlined two-dimensional figure made of thick brushstrokes, our dreamer takes on the plasmatic qualities of handrawn-animation, morphing into a water-colored eagle and then disintegrating into lines and colors. It’s as if the film has created levels of perceptual realism that are far more involved and vast than the painting-reality dualism it seems to set up. In this way, all of the crises in Le Tableau are not simply social allegories, but are dramatizations of how we engage with artworks, about the mental and material facts of art-making, and at times about the work that goes into mixing media to create particular aesthetic effects. When the figures fantasize about meeting the painter who created them, this isn’t simply a thinly veiled metaphor for the hope religion provides. Contemplating one’s existence and origin, the film suggests, goes hand in hand with the appreciation of art. Perhaps, then, the film’s strangest moment occurs when the figures discover photographs in the painter’s studio. Importantly, the figures in the photos, unlike those on the surfaces of paintings, don’t come to life. After all, the photograph’s automatic making denies the hand of the creator, and so in the world of the film, photographs are inanimate objects and nothing more. In the film’s deistic worldview, life is given only by the design of a conscious creator but then is left alone, a fact affirmed by the film’s last line, when our protagonist finally meets her human maker and asks, “Who painted you?” It’s fitting, then, that a film which denies life to technological reproductions almost tries to make us believe that its computerized characters are drawn by human hands alone.

[1] I’m inclined to call these beings “figures” because, though they’re all representations of human beings, the nature of their differences draws our attention to the perceptual mechanisms involved in figuration, or how we mentally piece together figures from lines and colors. It’s a fact most clearly demonstrated when a group of toupins beat up a reuf until he becomes a vague, indiscernible blob of sketched lines; the fragility of the reuf’s body is a function of its figural simplicity, so violence isn’t so much done to the body as it is its undoing.