Desire and Sexuality – Animating the Unconscious

By David Surman

dream-of-the-sandman-animation.jpgDream of the Sandman

Animation plays to its unique strengths in a striking new collection

In the three volumes of Desire and Sexuality: Animating the Unconscious Jayne Pilling, the collection Editor and director of the British Animation Awards, has brought together a variety of visually striking and emotionally resonant animated shorts. Each DVD features 10 international films; the set includes both well known classics and lesser-known works.

There is something special about animation which makes it depiction of desire and sexuality so unique and absorbing. Perhaps the relationship between desire, sexuality and animation arises naturally from the process of making short film. Like a pocket mirror, the animated short partially reflects its maker. The animation process is rarely quick, is often intensely laborious, and yet the viewpoint it creates is often so intimate; uniquely charged with the electric immediacy of its making. The exhaustive animation process, the frame-by-frame method, means the production of an on-screen kiss might take a week or two. Each frame scrutinised, set in its place, finally filmed and fixed in sequence. In an effort to understand the object of desire, we see the same animated movement over and over; In Kojiro Shishido’s Naked Youth (vol. 3), we are given an opportunity to savour the tension between bodies in space.

stain-marjut-rimminen.jpgThe Stain

The filmmaker slices up the intimate moment for close analysis, and then reassembles it in time. When we watch the animation of intimacy, what we feel is the weight of this closeness between the maker and their chosen moment. What becomes clear as you watch these films is that by using animation, the filmmaker has an opportunity to strategically break down the difference between subject and object (where/what/why am I in relation to the action). From the reconstructed image of intimacy emerges the often intense simulation of sensation. Key-frames act like points of intensity in our memory of feeling. Emotions are shown as colour and line, light and form. Often the represented body yields to an inner world of symbolism and emotion.

Something like the colourful performance of a cuttlefish, the protagonists of Andreas Hykade’s Ring of Fire and Gael Brisou’s Sucré (vol. 1) physically change to reflect their emotional journey. Hykade’s watery nymph-cowgirl stands there dejected – her flowing curves reduced to ashen bruises. The liberty to play with physical limits makes animation an almost unlimited space for depicting the changeability and chemistry of people as they interact.

guy-101-animation.jpgGuy 101

When film actor’s embrace one another, the chemistry between the two is scrutinised and can make or break our suspension of disbelief. In animation, we appreciate the portrait of desire, intimacy and sexuality as a gesture (like the drawing) indicating the whimsy of emotion and the permeability of the body. The difference between you and I is far less absolute when we exist as lines on the page, changing over time. Pilling is careful to temper the intensity of certain films with others which combine animations comedy legacy with its capacity to depict desire in new ways. In both Michaela Pavlatova’s Repete and Monika Forsberg’s His Passionate Bride humour intercedes to reinforce our expectations about animation (‘it’s just a cartoon’), but then plays with the sentiment by broaching adult subject matter. As such, themes of desire and sexuality become central to articulating a claim for a more complex cultural view of animation beyond the bounds of mere children’s humour. By exploiting humour, speaking with the familiar face of animation on notions of desire and sexuality, many of these films address these themes, but also core questions of animation form.

The themes and ideas realised in the animated short are often highly personal because they are frequently solely authored, or at least produced by relatively few people. It makes sense then that the highly subjective theme of desire and sexuality is explored in considerable depth in independent short animation. This idiosyncrasy is characteristic of this collection, which shows no recurrent style or mode as emerging from the material. Animation, in its encounter with themes of desire and sexuality, leapfrogs the generic constraints and ideological frames of large scale production, and instead exploits its opportunity to depict without explanation. Across the three volumes, many of the films literalise the sensations associated with personal emotional struggle, breaking logical reality in favour of evoking an emotional complexity.


For me, Marie Paccou’s film Un Jour (vol. 1) is metonymic of the argument Pilling makes in compiling these volumes. A woman wakes to find a man literally stuck inside her; joined as they are their silhouette creates a cruciform shape. He helps her in her daily work, and she compensates to accommodate him. Her neighbour shares her predicament, though this woman is run through by a fierce and misogynistic grump. Our heroine achieves something of a normal life, and then he is gone. Without explanation she is left with a physical hole. This hole, which we see in her changed silhouette, stands in for the knots and holes that riddle the body of a relationship. It is an index of what was, but also an invitation of what might be; experience and expectation.

Desire and Sexuality: Animating the Unconscious is available from the British Animation Awards.

David Surman is Senior Lecturer and Course Leader for the BA Computer Games Design degree at the Newport School of Art, Media and Design at the University of Wales Newport. He is author of The Videogames Handbook (Routledge, 2008), and has written many articles on his passions – animé, videogames and graphic art.