Propelled by a jarring, lyrical aesthetic, Aphasia pulls viewers into a disconcerting sensory experience. This striking and unsettling debut professional animated short by Marielle Dalpé is a deeply moving foray into the heart of aphasia—a devastating neurocognitive condition that progressively destroys the ability to speak and understand words, afflicting many people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Both striking and unsettling, Aphasia is a deeply moving foray into the heart of a devastating neurocognitive condition, one that progressively destroys the ability to speak and understand words, afflicting many people who have Alzheimer’s disease.
Propelled by a jarring, lyrical aesthetic, the film pulls viewers into a disconcerting sensory experience. Visuals and sounds multiply and are superimposed on each other. Images collide as the voice of the narrator, Clare Coulter, dissolves into echoes. Meanwhile, startling glitch effects shatter the clean lines of the images.
In her debut professional animated short, Marielle Dalpé is not content to simply evoke the world of language dysfunction. Instead, she fully immerses us in it. The film allows us to feel what it must be like to engage in a battle with time and the limits of our own minds, while everything seems to be slipping away…
This powerful and important work highlights the ambiguous fragility of existence, and reminds us of that which makes us uniquely human: our ability to communicate.
A poetic tour-de-force with universal resonance, Aphasia encourages both individual and collective reflection.
Aphasia is an unsettling sensory experience that immerses us in the world of people with Alzheimer’s disease who are facing the loss of their language capabilities.
What was the idea behind the film? What was your inspiration?
Most of the animated shorts I’ve seen about Alzheimer’s disease use beauty as a way to help the audience accept what’s happening. But Alzheimer’s disease is violent—both for people suffering from it and for caregivers who find themselves helpless against the disease. I wanted to contribute to the Alzheimer’s conversation by approaching it from a different angle: aphasia. But I also wanted to show this violence in a disturbing way.
Why did you decide on a non-narrative approach?
It came about naturally. I wanted the film to be immersive, something that audiences experience. Instead of telling a sentimental story, I wanted people to feel what’s going on in the head of a person who has aphasia related to Alzheimer’s disease. That led me to the idea of the glitch: a controlled imperfection, a combination of textures or motifs that seems chaotic but is the result of a manipulation technique. This notion lent itself to a non-narrative approach and allowed me to play up the unsettling side of the film.
What animation techniques did you use, and what was the biggest challenge you faced with respect to form and technique?
I used what I call animated textures. I work with the material, which gives the film an organic feel and connects us to the human side of the subject. I chose a very traditional aesthetic, but I included a lot of compositing—a way of combining a number of different visual layers to create a unique image—right from the start of the process. Usually, compositing is only used in post-production. For me, compositing was part of how I conceptualized the images, and it influenced my choices of texture and colour.
One of my biggest challenges was the computer itself. I was working with a very large number of photos and textured animations. Most shots had more than 90 layers. The files were very large and it was sometimes hard to keep everything under control. So I had to take these technical limitations into account during the process of creation.
In Aphasia, sound is just as important as image. They influenced each other throughout the whole process. Sound designer Luigi Allemano used many tracks. When we looked at our work, we could see similarities. He was working on the sound in Pro Tools and I was working on the images with After Effects. In my film, sound reflects what’s going on in the head of the woman with aphasia. It does not reflect reality. Sound and image are separate, but together they form a whole.
What cinematic influences contributed to the film’s atmosphere?
At a certain point, I felt like the film was getting away from me. That I wasn’t going in the right direction. I had to come back to my original intention, which was to make an unsettling film. I wanted audiences to feel how the character loses all sense of time, but that was a difficult concept to explain to the people I was working with. I used Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad to help get across what I was trying to create: that darkness, the repetition achieved through editing, and the subjectivity of the relationship between sound and image. By the way, this Resnais film is what led me to want to continue to create.
How did you come to work with Andrée Lachapelle, who narrates the French version of the film? And tell us about how you used voice.
When I came up with the idea of the glitches, I wrote a first draft of the text and was looking for an elderly voice. A childhood friend suggested I speak with their grandmother, Andrée Lachapelle. I knew her but had not seen her in years. We went to her house. This was in spring 2019, and she had just finished shooting her final role, in And the Birds Rained Down. It all went off very easily, and it was a really special moment for me.
I didn’t want to use any music or sound effects. In the French version, all the sounds in the film come from Andrée Lachapelle’s voice. The voice in the English version is Clare Coulter’s. Luigi Allemano played with vocal tone and frequency to create different sounds and textures.
In 2020, you received a special mention for this project during the pitch competition at the Cinémathèque québécoise’s Sommets du cinéma d’animation. How did the NFB allow you to take the project farther?
I worked on this film for years, but I was never able to find financing. I wanted to make an independent film. In 2020, I decided to take a chance and sent the proposal to the NFB. In my NFB proposal, I noted the special mention from the pitch competition. When French Animation Studio producer Marc Bertrand decided he wanted to produce the film, that changed everything. I finally had the resources to develop it the way I wanted, both conceptually and technically—especially when it came to animated textures and compositing. Without the NFB, I don’t think I would have been able to push this project as far as I did.
Aphasia is a communication disorder that affects many people who have Alzheimer’s disease. It occurs when the part of the brain responsible for language is damaged. People with aphasia may have difficulty speaking, understanding spoken language, and reading and writing. As a result, they can have a hard time effectively expressing their needs and their thoughts, which leads to feelings of frustration and isolation.
In Canada, more than 350,000 people* are affected by Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is expected to rise to 1.1 million by 2050.* More than one in five Canadians* have taken care of someone with a neurocognitive difficulty such as aphasia. As the population of Canada ages, it’s more important than ever to raise awareness of aphasia and its effects. By understanding the challenges faced by people with aphasia, we can ensure they receive the support and care they need to live with dignity.
* Source: Alzheimer Society of Canada
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Writer, Director, Art Director
With the voice of
Consultant to the Director
Jean Paul Vialard
Technical Specialist, Animation
Senior Production Coordinators
Muriel and Andrée
Mélanie Boudreau Blanchard
© National Film Board of Canada, 2023