Since his breakout early days directing commercials and music videos for the likes of Fatboy Slim, Weezer, Daft Punk, and the Breeders, Spike Jonze has honed a quirky visual sensibility that translated almost seamlessly to feature film. But even at his quirkiest, Jonze hasn’t been about quirk for quirk’s sake. His characters—highly emotional robots, dog-headed men with broken legs, tormented puppeteers, enthusiastic amateur dance troops—are underdogs, weirdos, figures on the fringes who make us question what it means to be people: to be lonely, in love, creatively obsessed, and emotionally scrambled….
There is a paradox inherent in Jonze’s films and videos. Their oddball plots and characters cut through the cynical veneer of cool that keeps us from asking hard questions about our emotional lives, but they do so in stylistic exercises that in some cases themselves become emblems of pop-culture cool. Not so the short film “Mourir auprès de toi” (“To Die by Your Side”), which takes its title from one of the most achingly heartbreaking of Smiths’ songs. This is a love story for the bookish and the crafty, set in Paris’ famed Shakespeare and Company bookstore and featuring animated book covers made from embroidered felt cutouts.
Co-written and with a look inspired by designer Olympia Le-Tan, the short is “an absolutely beautiful stop-motion animation for book-lovers that’s part This Is Where We Live, part Going West, part creative magic only Spike Jonze can bring.” So writes Maria Popova at The Atlantic, summarizing the ups and downs of the plot and alluding to a “happily-ever-after ending” that “comes only after an appropriately dark and grim twist.”
Watch “To Die by Your Side” at the top of the post, then, just above, see a short behind-the-scenes teaser video. “You just start with what the feeling is,” Jonze told Nowness in an interview, “Me and Olympia both wanted to make a love story…. It evolved naturally and it all just started with the feeling. From there you entertain yourself with ideas that excite you.” The quote explains why Jonze’s films and videos—for all their visual inventiveness and imaginative whimsy—nearly always stay grounded in candid emotional realism. However far and wide Jonze’ cinematic and narrative imagination takes us, his films always start with the feeling.
“Mourir auprès de toi” (“To Die by Your Side”) first appeared on our site in October, 2011.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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