Directed by Robert Morgan
Warning: Contains Spoilers
The Separation is a deeply disturbing short film that works on many levels. Robert Morgan exploits the unease that often accompanies watching stop-motion animation to create a haunting and slightly nauseating tale of fraternal love.
Morgan summons up more chills in under ten minutes than most film makers manage in an hour and a half. The ambiance and lighting of The Separation is akin to that of a horror movie but at its essence, it’s a film about the damaging nature of love.
Some of the greatest horror stories are built around a love story but the love in these tales is almost inevitably romantic in nature. In The Separation, the focus is on a fraternal bond.
The film opens with co-joined twins floating in the serene netherworld of the womb. It’s a tranquil, almost spiritual scene designed to convey a sense of harmony.
The next scene shows the two of them, now children, in a hospital room. It’s interesting to note that the original trauma portrayed in the film is that of separation, not birth. We can’t recall being thrust into the world but for young children, separation is a primal fear.
The film then follows how each twin is affected by the separation. One of them is left with limited mobility – he cannot walk without a crutch. This twin is repeatedly shown reaching out for his brother who seems to fear a return to their previous state of unity.
Finally, in an act born of love, the reluctant brother creates a machine to sew them back together. The machine itself is a steam-punk nightmare. Little could be further from the biological miracle of their original state.
As expected, things go horribly wrong – the able-bodied brother is mutilated by the machine and reduced to a blind, limbless worm completely dependent on his twin. Despite the eerie beauty of the last scene and the tenderness of their final interaction, this is not a happy ending.
Part of Morgan’s genius is his ability to fulfill our expectations in an unexpected way. From the moment we realize the twins’ conflicting desires, we suspect that tragedy lies ahead. But Morgan manages to deliver this tragedy in a way that both skews and yet fulfills our expectations.
Like one of his other works The Cat With Hands, The Separation follows a circular narrative structure. The opening and closing scenes mirror each other. Certain elements reoccur – in an early scene, the two boys play with a limbless, crudely bandaged doll. After the one twin is mutilated, he becomes a twisted parody of this doll. Morgan expertly builds tension by repeating symbols and elements throughout the film. Physical handicaps are used as metaphors for emotional ones. The one brother’s crutch clearly represents emotional dependence. While this sort of symbolism may be controversial in live action films, it works well here.
Animations, especially those with styles not designed to evoke reality, reduce their cast to symbols. The characters can become ciphers for our basic needs, fears and desires. What happens to them is not meant to be an accurate portrayal of real life occurrences. Were this film life-action, the use of physical disability to convey a theme might have been distasteful.
Many critics were disturbed with by the euthanasia scene in Million Dollar Baby. The protagonist Margaret “Maggie” Fitzgerald was unable to cope with becoming a quadriplegic – she chose death over trying to live with her disability. In fact, her death was a metaphor for the death of the America Dream but since Maggie was a complex, three-dimensional character trying to cope with her paralysis in a realistic setting, it was difficult to read her actions as merely symbolic.
Robert Morgan cleverly avoids this issue by choosing stop motion as his medium. By doing so, Morgan separates the events in his film from reality. This makes it clear that the story is allegorical. He has accurately described his characters as basic organisms who evoke complex emotions. The twins in The Separation are not complicated beings – they are vessels. They embody two of the primary human desires – our desire for unity with another human and our equally compelling desire for independence.
The outcome of surrendering independence results not in unity but in a twisted codependency in which one twin becomes reliant on the other not only for basic care-taking but even for the stimulation of his senses.
I’ve seldom seen the issue of codependency explored so persuasively or in so disturbing a manner. The surreal setting and medium frees Morgan of the need to rationalize the actions of his characters. There’s a primal immediacy to their emotions and choices as well as the outcome of these choices.
The emotional truths at the heart of The Separation may cut closer to the bone than we prefer but the film is a welcome change from colorful mediocrity of much mainstream animation.