At the Cinekid Festival in 2020, French director Rémi Chayé’s “Calamity” was voted Best Children’s Film by the expert jury, and it’s not hard to see how they reached that verdict. The film tells of the childhood of Martha Jane Cannary, who would later become known as Calamity Jane, a “Wild West” heroine. While the film is by no means historically accurate (Martha Jane, for example, would not use the nickname “Calamity” until her twenties), it tells a story that captivates the imagination.
We meet Martha Jane when, in 1863, she along with her father and brother and sister, as part of a procession of pioneers, travel west through North America in a covered wagon. They are in a completely patriarchal community. The men rule and the women should mainly wear skirts and not be too conspicuous. But when Martha Jane’s father is unable to drive the wagon due to an accident, she won’t let herself be discouraged and simply sits on the box herself. Some time later, when the procession is robbed, Martha Jane chases the alleged thief alone and the adventure really begins. By then she had already cut her hair and exchanged her skirt for trousers, to the horror of the majority of the pioneers.
Although she can manage just fine, Martha Jane gets stuck with the wayward Jonas, who takes her for a boy because of her tough appearance. They just happen to have to go the same way, so Martha Jane puts up with her companion. (It is also practical that she can use his transport.) The likely thief is a Confederate soldier who had announced that he was on his way to his camp. Undeterred, Martha Jane approaches his general, but he doesn’t like such a brat. The two children are then taken into the care of Madame Mustache, a free-spirited woman who participates in the gold rush that is raging in the West at the time. En passant they turn things upside down, which occasionally results in hilarious, Buster Keaton-esque slapstick moments.
Of course Martha Jane eventually manages to find the stolen items, but the story turns out to be a little different than she thought. Most importantly, she can return to the pioneers as an accomplished rider and tracker and claim her place in the group. In this way, Chayé provides a beautifully defined whole in which a young girl manages to reach full maturity against all the expectations of the suffocating society in which she finds herself. The story is told with an almost nonchalant flair, supported by a wonderful soundtrack by Florencia Di Concilio. Really a movie to immerse yourself in.
Director Rémi Chayé, who incidentally played a nice role in the realization of the first cartoon of Cartoon Saloon, “The Secret of Kells” (2009), has a nice style of his own. He previously showed this in his own debut film “Tout en haut du monde” (The long way to the north, 2015). He likes to use large areas with tightly defined (pastel) colors. At times it is as if you are looking at a moving oil painting. It is probably no coincidence that both films feature a young female protagonist and provide a clearly definable time frame. (“Tout en haut du monde” revolved around a late 19th-century Russian aristocrate.) Though devoid of historical accuracy, “Calamity” is a wonderful portrayal of what Calamity Jane’s childhood could have been like.
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