Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Review: Lucie Durbiano's Le Rouge Vous Va Si Bien (Gallimard, 2008)

Lucie Durbiano’s Le rouge vous va si bien (approximately “Red becomes you so well”), is a comic that we at ATF hold close to our collective heart. Given to me as a birthday present by Judith, I opened the book to find that: A) she had completely translated the comic, panel by panel, for me; and B) the comic was thoroughly awesome. I guess that it could be said that this is the comic that first planted the seeds that would eventually grew into this blog.

Comprised of seven unrelated stories, Rouge is all about taking a sideways look at love. Although independent from one other, the tales are always connected by the loose thematic anchor of 'relationships'. Not necessarily always amorous, the book presents relationships of many different forms. In "Lili et Charlie", a young woman and her lover, a 'freak', share forbidden passion. In the title story, the Little Red Riding Hood fable is subverted into a tale of naïve first love with an older man (the Wolf). "La complainte de l’escargot" is about a snail’s unrequited love for a statue of a woman. Regardless of the setting (or species), at the centre of all seven stories lies a connection between two characters.

Lili et Gonzo Charlie

It goes without saying that love can be a problematic motif in fiction, always carrying the risk of dragging a story into irredeemable cliché. Durbiano, however, manages the impressive task of utilising the theme effectively, its presence always seeming pertinent and never saccharine. Love (or lust) provides the impetus that drives the stories, rather than being the direct focus of them. As consequence, the reader’s attention is always on the interaction between characters rather than any expectation they may have of genre.

Like a more varied comic book equivalent of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, the short tales of Rouge focus primarily on interpersonal junctures that often begin in medias res, functioning as brief glances into a specific moment or situation. Having such an easily-identifiable theme is beneficial considering the brevity of the stories, making it easy for the reader to connect to these mini-narratives. Never explicitly judgmental, Durbiano’s style is to simply let the characters interact, giving the dialogue a (tenuous) naturalism; which, considering that this a book that contains an Alice in Wonderland homage, is no mean feat.

Tex Avery's wolf, eat your heart out: A-woo!

Indeed, the nature of the characters is often contradictory. For example, the conversation between Red Riding Hood and the Wolf initially has a cartoonish quality to it, often seeming irrational or impetuous. Conversely, for the exact same reasons, their dialogue sometimes seems remarkably plausible, its uncontrolled fickleness mirroring the thought processes of the ‘real world’.

The most ambitious story of the collection, "Far West", succeeds in managing to detail the complexity of an affair between a shopkeeper (Elie) and her fiancé’s brother (who is also engaged). This story, taking place in a nostalgic rendition of small-town America, gives any Danielle Steele synopsis a run for its money, containing the following elements: forbidden love, lust, adultery, parental expectation, a love triangle and a fraternal rivalry for a woman's affection. Durbiano, however, does in just 23 pages what Steele fails to do in 300: tell a remarkably subtle story that covers all the aforementioned tropes without ever feeling contrived. Never guiding the reader’s judgement, "Far West" is a layered story which mirrors the disorganised nature of genuine emotion. Elie is never vilified for cheating, nor is her illicit romance given eventual (Hollywood-style) justification. Her story is just like real life, a series of events that may or may not have an ultimate overarching purpose.

"Far West": Judith wanted me to mention the cute dresses that Durbiano draws. Ok, fine: I liked the dresses too.

Drawn in a ligne claire style, Le rouge vous va si bien is vibrant, colourful and expressive. It’s interesting to note that Durbiano started her professional career as an illustrator for children’s books. Although thematically a far cry from the world of children’s literature, visually, this comic contains a similar earnest expressive quality. The figures and colour pallets are clear, bold and instantly understandable. The comic’s construction is far from simplistic though, and demonstrates Durbiano’s masterful understanding of visual storytelling (for which she has received two nominations at the Angoulême Festival, once in 2006 and again in 2009).

With its expertly managed synchronisation of image and narrative, Le rouge vous va si bien is one of those comics that reminds me, as a comic-fan, exactly why I love the form so much in the first place. I would recommend it to anyone who has a benevolent francophone in their life to translate it for them. Failing that, grab a French-English dictionary and enjoy perhaps one of the most deceptively bittersweet comics of all time.


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