The entire short is under five minutes, so talking about it in terms of testing patience is a stretch, but we all know how easy it is to bounce off of online content that isn’t immediately engaging, so here it is anyway—it takes a modicum of patience to get to where Gabriel de la Roche is going in Les Hydres. And it’s worth the wait.

The film opens with its protagonist scrolling through a hand-drawn Google map, an experience that’s strangely satisfying in itself. Judging from my response to this segment, I could probably spend unreasonable amounts of time clicking and dragging on imaginary maps, especially if they came in this kind of cozy, intimate line art. It has the looseness of a notebook doodle or a children’s book illustration, but it’s also surprisingly intricate, inviting you to hunt for hidden details.

There’s no denying, though, that there isn’t much animation in Les Hydres’ opening minute-and-a-half, just a vicarious exploration of Alsace, depicted as a region of cute villages dotted with forests, deserts, and waterways, and surrounded by dark coastal waters. Finding the point of tension here requires a little geographical knowledge: Alsace is at the intersection of France, Germany, and Switzerland. It’s about as far from coastal as you can get in Western Europe. The water should not be here.

Charming as de la Roche’s map of antediluvian Europe may be, Les Hydres really takes off when its protagonist abandons his critical distance and dives into the film’s world. It’s a rare moment that probably plays better on a desktop display than it would in a cinema, a spot of magic that takes advantage of animation’s inherently fluid boundaries. The film’s climax is a psychedelic trip, a glorious, glitchy vision of aquatic life and ego death that couldn’t be further removed from the 2D scrolling of its opening.

Rising sea levels and climate change seem to be an ongoing concern in de la Roche’s art. His only other work on Vimeo is a short called urun that also deals with landscape, climate and resources, although visually, its atmospheric CG couldn’t be more different from Les Hydres’ warm hand-drawn look. But even though they’re inspired by contemporary issues, these aren’t message films; they can’t be distilled down to a single sentiment or a call to action. If Les Hydres is about anything, it’s a feeling, ambiguous and unsettling, but impossible to turn away from.

Les Hydres

dir: Gabriel de la Roche
syn: La mer est arrivée jusqu’en Alsace, des créatures gigantesques traversent les flots. Il faut descendre dans ce nouvel océan, plonger tout au fond. Se faire dévorer par les monstres marins pour se dissoudre dans leurs flancs. (The sea has reached Alsace, gigantic creatures cross the waves. A man has descended into this new ocean, and dives to the bottom. He is devoured by sea monsters to dissolve in their flanks. )

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