Madame Tutli-Putli depicts a journey through existential nightmares and dreamscapes. Part thriller, part science fiction, part mystery, the short drama accomplishes a seamless drift between real and imagined worlds. Tutli-Putli, outfitted as a twenties flapper, boards the night train only to be subjected to grave, perhaps supernatural, misdeeds. Inspired by its creators’ month-long 2002 train trip across Canada and set against the haunting wilderness that borders the tracks of the northern trail, Madame Tutli-Putli conveys the loneliness and isolation of confronting the past. A perverted tennis player sexually harasses the protagonist, a toughened child rebukes her sentiments, and a chess game between Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray almost turns violent – but the passengers of Tutli-Putli’s train car are only the beginning of her suspenseful, perilous trip. Hurtling along the tracks among hostile strangers, she faces an uncertain destiny, while the viewer beholds a curious, eerie but enthralling depiction of a time when Canadians were dependent on the rails.
Immense success on the festival circuit and numerous top awards acknowledge the filmmakers’ devotion to experimentation, innovation and craftsmanship, as well as the five years it took to bring seventeen minutes of animation to life. As the first film of Montreal-based animators Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski’s Clyde Henry Productions, Madame Tutli-Putli is a remarkable feat – an achievement in keeping with the National Film Board of Canada’s international acclaim in animation. The NFB, having won a 2004 Academy Award® for Chris Landreth’s animated short Ryan, furthers its impressive repertoire with Madame Tutli-Putli. The 2007 short film came
on the heels of several recent Academy Award nominations for the NFB that also included Hubert Davis’s Hardwood and Torill Kove’s The Danish Poet. Moreover, Madame Tutli-Putli was celebrated at the Cannes Film Festival, winning both the Canal+ Award for best short and the Petit Rail d’Or, also for best short. The film garnered several top animation prizes, including wins at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Animacor International Animation Festival in Cordoba, Spain, the New York City Short Film Festival, the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas, and the International Animation Festival in Ottawa. Significantly, the film also counts the Genie Award for best animated short among its numerous other achievements.
The film’s immense accomplishments are a reflection of the creators’ ingenuity. Each frame of Madame Tutli-Putli is a testament to painstaking composition. An entire year was spent designing and building the film’s sets and puppets. Costume designer Lea Carlson searched haberdasheries and furriers for the right materials to construct Tutli-Putli’s delicate gloves and elegant hat; all the costumes for the film were dyed and sewn by hand. Sets were built from found materials scrounged from the streets around the studio, and each shot of the sky outside the train car’s window is an oil painting by Szczerbowski. Also of immeasurable importance to the film’s haunting atmosphere is the soundtrack by composer David Bryant of the Montreal-based collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The film’s cacophony of sounds were created through unconventional methods, such as pouring dry ice over the charred innards of an antique piano.
Finally, the magnitude of Lavis and Szczerbowski’s penchant for technological innovation must be acknowledged. Although the majority of the film’s effects rely on stop-motion techniques, the directors accomplished a first in the field of animation by combining puppet performance with human performance. Lavis and Szczerbowski experimented until they perfected a process for digitally inserting human eyes onto the handmade puppets, giving Madame Tutli-Putli an emotional spectrum unparalleled by any other stop-motion character. With the eyes of Laurie Maher, actress and muse to the animators, Tutli-Putli is a puppet with a soul. Containing not a single morsel of spoken dialogue, Madame Tutli-Putli mesmerizes its viewers with its haunting mood, intense intricacies and its heroine’s unforgettable gaze.