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Ratatouille: Hierarchy and Ethics in Lighting

14th of November, 2020

This piece was first left as a review on the website RateYourMusic. I was reviewing Ratatouille, the Pixar film.

Ratatouille might have been a gorgeous looking film if it had been claymation, but of course it might have been gorgeous if it had just been animated with more love and care. Visually the film reminds me of coffee staining treasure maps to make them look old: the curious ahistorical Paris apparently necessitates that everything is lit like the inside of an Olive Garden restaurant, so that American audiences understand it to be Paris at all. This isn't me saying that the choice to make the film that way is bad necessarily, but it does look extremely unusual given Remy's somehow rather hideous visual design and Linguini's creepy puppet gangliness. The other night when I was in my garden I spotted a spider on the fence with only five legs, struggling along and jerking about with all the difficulty that having almost half of the proper number of limbs would entail. I imagine that if I were to illuminate that little guy by candlelight and have him stumble about near a still life arrangement of some bread and garlic it might feel something like watching this film.

Just vibing

American family oriented movies have a troubling habit of justifying hierarchy. A plot outline: outsider is unhappy and chases the superficial in order to make himself happy, but eventually realises that the only true happiness is self acceptance. Phrased this way, it's obvious how it manages to keep getting made into films, but it can be phrased another way. Outsider is unhappy and looks to upset the hierarchy that is making him so, until the hierarchy reveals itself to be natural and ultimately just, forcing the outsider to return to his position of rolling that boulder and imagining himself happy.

Remy's miraculous talent and Linguini's failure to learn to cook undermine the message of the film: that anyone can make art. Annoyingly, the way in which the film attacks art elitism is not to suggest that talent and conservative value judgements are phony constructs, such that anyone might make art which does not conform to elitist notions of value and is valuable and beautiful anyway. Instead, the attack is fought squarely on the grounds of identity: anyone can make great art if they have the talent and the predisposition for art which conforms to bourgeois notions of acceptable standards for beauty. Likewise, the treatment of Anton Ego ends up annoying me for reasons which I assume are obvious.

But, despite everything I have written, it's obvious that the film means well, and occasionally it succeeds at properly articulating this goodness. In the second act, Remy argues with his father, who says that "you can't change nature". Remy replies "change is nature". By the end of the film, against all odds, Remy is not just happy but in a better material condition than when he started, and is in this position precisely because he rebelled against a hierarchy that the text explicitly refuses to suggest is either natural or just. In fact, if one is willing to be charitable then the treatment of Ego, which is callous on its face, might be less objectionable than it looks. By its cartoonish characterisation of his art as fundamentally parasitic upon Remy's, preying vampire like (his office is literally a coffin), the text seems to want for his arc to make a case against bourgeois art. Remy is a great artist, perhaps, but first and foremost he is a second class citizen in Paris. His art will always be susceptible to bourgeois appropriation, which in this film comes in the form of the impossibly wealthy food critic whose mode of creativity appears in his ascetic refusal to enjoy life.

Remy's visual design being so hideous is important. His Oxford blue fur and the spammy looking pink rings around his eyes never feel at home in the sepias and burgundies of Paris. Another of his father's lines in the same second act scene: "The world we live in belongs to the enemy." The world in which Remy makes his art, at face value, opens itself to him when he is able to set up his own restaurant and make a living for himself by his own means as an artist. But the very fabric of Ratatouille's Paris, the colour spectrum of virtual light by which it exists, forever marks him as an irreconcilable outsider.