‘Memoir Of A Snail’ Review: Australian Claymation Master Adam Elliot Reflects On Love, Grief And Human Weakness – Annecy

As a small child, motherless Grace started keeping snails in a jar, writing names on their shells and watching their life cycle — mate, breed, die — with loving fascination. “They were my friends,” she muses in voiceover in Memoir of a Snail, which this week had its premiere at the Annecy International Animation Festival. “I knew they’d never leave me, hurt me — or die.” Moments before, we saw Gracie’s huge ovoid eyes, spill over with tears as the aged Pinkie, her only human companion, breathed her final death rattle. “I’m so alone,” says Grace, not for the first time. “Goddamn life! Such a stupid, stupid puzzle!”

Pathos laid on with a shovel, you may be thinking — but you would be wrong. Following 2009’s Mary and Max, Memoir of a Snail is only the second Claymation feature from Australia’s Adam Elliot, who won an Oscar for his short film Harvey Krumpet in 2003. Elliot makes films unlike anyone else’s: quirky, intimate, minutely observed, melancholy and funny in equal measure and very obviously made of clay. That homespun quality, coupled with the engaging voice Succession star Sarah Snook brings to the long-suffering Gracie, turn an ostensibly bleak story into a life-affirming pleasure.

More from Deadline

Young Gracie was born with a split upper lip. She adores her twin brother Gilbert (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who gamely fights off the school bullies who mock his sister’s “rabbit face” and harbors dreams of becoming a Parisian street performer like their father. Papa Percy is now in a wheelchair, having been mown down mid-juggle by a drunk driver soon after moving to Australia; since their mother died, he has also taken to the bottle. And yet, as voiced with plenty of French flourishes by Dominique Pinon, Percy is a kind parent who delights in doing funny things with jellybeans for his children’s amusement; one of the charms of Elliot’s work is his generosity towards his characters’ failings.

Difficulty turns to tragedy when Percy dies and the children are sent to foster homes on opposite sides of the country. Gracie is taken in by a couple of swingers, Ian and Narelle (both voiced by gender-straddling cabaret performer Paul Capsis) in Australia’s legendarily dull capital city, Canberra. Unmoved by her new parents’ passions for netball and nudism, Grace turns to the elderly eccentric Pinky, voiced with gravelly chutzpah by Jacki Weaver, who becomes her one true friend. Gilbert’s fate is worse. Isolated in rural Western Australia with a family of fundamentalists who wear magnets as talismans against Satan and fetishize apples, he will find new targets for his pyromania.

The twins write to each other often. Gilbert swears he is coming to get his sister but has no money. Cut down by loneliness and a rich mix of anxieties, she submerges herself in hoarding, shoplifting and a brief but bizarre marriage to a microwave mechanic (Tony Armstrong) who feeds her as if he’s as if he is fattening her up for market. From here, things only get sadder, even if that sadness is leavened by dozens of visual jokes, the thrill of hearing musician Nick Cave recite a poem and the memoir’s paradoxically comforting reflections on grief. Eleanor Kats-Chernin’s lovely original score dances around Gracie’s monologue like a sprite.

Elliot is something of a fundamentalist himself. Eschewing modern temptations like the 3D printer, he and his team made all 7,000 objects and 200 sets in his film by hand, incorporating the wobbles and thumb-prints resulting from Elliot’s hereditary shake, an aesthetic he calls “chunky wonky”. That is just the start of the process, however. There is no slower way to make a film than to move objects incrementally, frame by frame, to suggest motion; Memoir of a Snail’s 94 minutes are composed of 135,000 photographs, shot over 33 weeks by cinematographer Gerald Thompson. You don’t have to be mad to do stop-motion animation but, as the saying goes, it helps.

Which makes it all the remarkable that Memoir of a Snail, peopled though it is with flawed, unpredictable characters, is so reassuringly sane. People may be wayward, weak or behave  reprehensibly (like the magistrate Grace encounters who was disbarred for masturbating in court, played endearingly by Eric Bana), but most of them do their best. Elliot actually has his own flaws and weaknesses: for example, he has a regrettable tendency to show us an event and then have Gracie tell us what happened, so that we are effectively told twice. Characters repeat themselves, too; Grace says way too many times that she misses Gilbert “like crazy”. We can see that; we can feel it; it is the pulse of the story.

But it doesn’t matter.  The flaws fit; they are verbal thumbprints, if you like. Why would Elliot be perfect? We know in our bones — especially after seeing this film — that nobody is.

Title: Memoir of a Snail
Festival: Annecy (Competition)
Director/screenwriter: Adam Elliot 
Voice cast: Sarah Snook, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Eric Bana, Dominique Pinon, Tony Armstrong, Jacki Weaver
Sales agent: Anton/Charades
Running time: 1 hr 35 min

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.