Located in the claustrophobically intimate setting of a family kitchen, Kelsi Phụng and Fabien Corre’s animated short film Les lèvres gercées follows a young child as they try to communicate their trans identity to their mother. Heartbreaking and sensitively observed, the mother and child struggle to connect with each other until endless scenes of indifference, missed opportunities and misunderstandings are punctured by a stark realisation.
Created as a project at the Gobelins animation school in Paris, the starting point for the film’s concept came when Kelsi and Fabien watched the documentary Gender Revolution. The pair were struck by a particular scene where a mother explains that she first opened her eyes to the trans identity of her seven-year-old when her daughter told her that she would rather die than not be herself as a girl. “We decided that we wanted to talk about the background of this story,” the pair tell It’s Nice That. “It’s a story that we share as queer directors, and that many LGBTI+ people go through nowadays. We wanted to talk about the huge impact of communication within the family home, especially in a society that is so violent against LGBTI+ people’s rights.”
What’s so powerful about the film, aside from the tension built up by the sparse, pointed dialogue, is its realistic minutiae, from every glance to eyebrow raise. To achieve this Kelsi and Fabien decided to use live action references by filming a theatre actress and a classmate for the film. Not only did it allow them to direct the action, but it also enabled them to capture natural physical reflexes or hesitations that they would not have necessarily thought of if they had directly animated each scene. “It was very enriching, and I think it permitted us to have a solid base to anchor the film in the real world,” Kelsi and Fabien say. “It was very important for us that the audience could relate to our main character, so we chose to show her frontally, to focus on her face and reactions, whereas the mother is always shown a bit out of the frame. Until the end, we don’t see the mother’s eyes, to reinforce the fact that she doesn’t truly look at her daughter.”
The duo’s animation style was also used as a device to add to the feeling of pressure and weight. Choosing a thick and defined line, the style gives the characters and the backgrounds a heavy presence. “The patterns that we used to create the shadows in the backgrounds are here to saturate the scenes,” say Kelsi and Fabien. “They let almost no air for the main character to breathe, no space for the eyes to have rest. We wanted this kitchen to be full, suffocating, and use the line as a way to give a glimpse of the inner confusion and distress of the main character.” Several times in the film, Kelsi and Fabien show the mother and the daughter in two separated shots instead of having them inside one shot, playing on the composition of the frames to make the distance seem bigger between them, even if they are sitting face to face at the same table. “We love that when the characters have no reason to move, they just keep still, which conveys a feeling of inertia.”
Following the film’s success, Kelsi and Fabien are currently preparing a series based on Les lèvres gercées, with the aim of exposing the everyday life struggles of trans and non-binary people (when visiting the doctor of fighting to be named and gendered correctly in school and university) and to empower them. “We like to tell intimate stories that convey emotions, especially for minorities, to feel they exist and they are represented. The reception to out movie has been really touching, especially from the people concerned. Some even came out using our film as a bridge in their family.”