August used to be a missionary somewhere overseas, trying to do good works in places where good works are seldom seen. One day he returns home to his native Denmark, and walks in on his sister Christina while she’s in the middle of one of her porno shoots. She wants nothing to do with him, especially now that she’s about to have her daughter. When August asks her if the girl deserves a better life than what she’s created, she shouts “Plenty of other people need salvation — go and find them!” and slams down the phone in his ear.
Five years later Christina’s dead of a drug overdose, and August has renounced his vows. His new mission is not to preach to anonymous flocks but to do his best to bring up Christina’s five-year-old daughter, Mia. She’s been living in and around the nebulous pseudo-family of people that sprung up around her mother’s porno production mini-empire. August plans to take Mia out of that environment, keep her safe under his wing, and do right by her. He winds up doing wrong by almost everyone around him, himself included.
The bare outlines of the plot for Princess make it sound like a revenge thriller of the kind you’d see coming from Andrew Kevin Walker (SE7EN, Zodiac, 8MM). That it is a mix of animation and live action makes it feel more like the kind of project Ralph Bakshi might have tackled back when it was still marginally possible to finance and release an R- or even X-rated animated film in theaters in the U.S. Impossible today, maybe, but home video (and online streaming) has made it possible for most any movie to find its respective audience in time. Princess could serve as a test case. No American studio would have financed it — and it’s a minimal production, even by European standards — but it’s bold and smart and even touching in ways that many entirely live-action films are not.
Mia is “rather grown-up for a five-year-old,” as the brothel-owner puts it. This is the mildest way to say Mia has seen things no five-year-old deserves to see. She’s withdrawn, uncommunicative. She eats cereal straight from the box, and confides more in her stuffed rabbit named Multe than she does in any adult. She sports bruises that cannot come from rough-housing with other children, because she never does that. She touches August inappropriately. She knows entirely too much about things adults do with each other without a hint of tenderness. August looks at all this and tries to put a lid on his anger, but he cannot, and the more he sees the more his blood boils.
Christina’s associates don’t think much of August. When he attempts to defend his ecclesiastical work by saying “I did my best,” the owner of a brothel and one of Christina’s friends, retorts: “Hardly. Then she wouldn’t be dead.” The answers he gets back from them about what happened to Mia make him seethe, too. It’s not anyone’s fault. You can’t protect Mia from reality, they say. No, he wants to shout at them: this is a little girl, and there are some things in this world that are simply wrong. These same people built a hideously inappropriate shrine for Christina after her death, one which Mia can’t see for what it is because she’s … a girl, a five-year-old girl. She deserves a life outside of all this, and he is sure he is the one to give it to her. Then comes a moment where he tears a total stranger out of his car and beats him half to death for soliciting a prostitute.
August wants revenge. Not just on the people who did this to Christina and Mia, but on the buying and selling of sex as a whole. The local gang of sleaze-merchants will do nicely as interim sacrificial lambs, though. And so he threatens their business, sets their warehouses on fire, slashes the face of one man with his own knife. Then he does something truly shocking that sets the tone for the entire final third of the film: He invites Mia to come along on one of his rampages, and lets her take her own revenge on one of the men who abused her. She cheerfully agrees. She, like Uncle August, has no idea what is truly being unleashed here.
Call Princess an “animated film” and you miss half the point. The fact that it is animated (with about 15-20% live action sprinkled throughout) is an artistic choice, like black-and-white versus color. Animation was their way of telling a story that might not have lent itself to being filmed realistically, for any number of reasons. At one point Multe, Mia’s toy, comes to life in August’s eyes, and it’s not funny or cute — it’s downright horrifying, because he’s become that much more split off from reality. It’s another trailmarker on his road to hell. Most of the animation’s minimal — about on the same level as a TV show like The Simpsons — but it’s used well, and interleaved with live-action clips (shot on August’s own video camera) that serve as a framing and grounding device. All of the things that happened in those moments were a whole lifetime ago.
Much has been made elsewhere of how the movie is an indictment of the porn industry, but I don’t think director Anders Morgenthaler’s subject of attack is porn per se. That’s just the arena for all that goes on. What he’s more concerned with is how moral absolutes and gray areas collide, how it becomes possible to say things like “everyone involved was an adult” or “they knew what they were doing” and have those words ring hollow. There’s a moment on one of the old videotapes, one which Mia watches with horror, where a stoned and hysterical Christina threatens to kill Mia if August doesn’t leave them alone. We, and Mia along with us, are forced to ask: Did Christina know what she was doing then? Did anyone around her know? Did they care? Anyone, that is, except for August, whose response was to damage Mia in his own way, whether or not he realized it? The conclusion of the film is an embodiment of Hitchcock’s old homily about suspense being a bomb under a table waiting to go off — which, now that I think about it, sums up August himself. Nobody expects him to explode quite in the way he does, him included.