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The Forgotten: Raoul Servais' "Harpya" (1979)

In Raoul Servais' macabre animated Harpya. a bourgeois bachelor is persecuted by a malign bird-creature. Forever.
David Cairns
OK, this film isn't forgotten. It's extremely well-remembered by enthusiasts of European animated shorts. I'm just assuming that means most of us haven't heard of it. It's the most celebrated work by Belgian filmmaker Raoul Servais, but has a haunted, Eastern European feel reminiscent of Jan Švankmajer's sinister pixillations.
A man rescues a strange bird-woman from an assailant, striking him down and taking her home. Once there, she becomes a domineering monster, ruining his life until he himself is driven to attempt her destruction, at which point the narrative comes full and vicious circle...
On the face of it, the film is a misogynist fable, a phantasmagoria on the theme of Henry Higgins' lament "Let a Woman in Your Life." The story closely resembles that of Jenifer, a short horror story adapted by arch-misogynist Dario Argento for the series Masters of Horror. And yet Harpya doesn't seem that offensive. Maybe some of this stems from it being darkly funny as well as disturbing, so that we can laugh at the misguided rescuer's sufferings rather than feeling we're supposed to be outraged on his behalf.
But also, there's the open question of what the film is about, really. Its surface incorporates live actors reduced to animated and/or jump-cut movement, and backgrounds which, in a Gilliam/Pythonesque way, combine cut-up and colored photographs with airbrushed drawings of cartoonish simplicity, and this is all so beautiful and compelling that the overall impression is of style and confidence: the film seems to know what it's doing, so we don't have to. Start picking it apart and dizzying possibilities tumble out. Maybe it's a simple illustration of the notion "no good deed goes unpunished." Or maybe the fable is political, a warning against interventionism, of getting mixed up in situations you only think you understand.
Whatever the truth, if we don't take the harpy literally as a bird, we don't have to take her literally as a woman. We can just enjoy the creepy, reverberant sound and the grotesque plot development, where our hero is literally torn in half, carrying on his role in the story as a Johnny Eck half-man, chopped off at the waist, a bit unhappy and embarrassed about it, but otherwise oddly unaffected.
Halloween is coming / The goose is getting fat / Plase put a penny in / The old man's hat.
***
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. 

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