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Review: ‘Cheatin’ ’ Conjures a Lusty Film-Noir Dreamscape

By A. O. SCOTTAPRIL 2, 2015

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Cheatin,’ ” the latest feature from the feverishly crosshatched imagination of the animator Bill Plympton, is a pulpy, sex-addled opera rendered in fleet penciled lines and watercolor washes. Mr. Plympton’s unmistakable style — the scrunched-up faces and elongated bodies, the figures that mutate as well as move, the volatile blending of the sensual and the grotesque — is pressed into the service of a lurid, lusty story that takes place in a colorful film-noir dreamscape.

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Cheatin'APRIL 3, 2015

Bursting with sound but devoid of intelligible dialogue, “Cheatin’ ” chronicles a couple, Jake and Ella, from first meeting to marital crisis. The opening sequence, which in some ways the movie never tops, follows Ella through a crowded carnival. Her lissome gait and bright yellow hat attract admiring attention that turns to mockery and hostility when she ignores it, preferring to read a book. Ella’s humiliation is one of the film’s motifs. She is a blameless soul brought down repeatedly by the reflexive aggression of others.

At first these others are mostly men, the exception being Jake. While on a date with someone else, he rescues Ella from a bumper-car mishap, and at first touch both are smitten. There follows a period of hot-and-heavy marital bliss (the soundtrack fills with moans and sighs and creaking bedsprings) and an old-fashioned household arrangement. Jake goes off to work at a gas station, while Ella stays home with the laundry, the dishes and her libido.

She has eyes only for her husband, who is drawn with a massive rib cage, a skeletal waist and a face like a Brancusi sculpture. Plenty of other women like his looks too, though, including an exhibitionist neighbor and a slinky-hipped customer. He ignores them all, until …

But see for yourself. After a graceful, wonderfully simple beginning, the story grows a bit tangled. There are a retired stage magician, a killer for hire, a series of sordid encounters in a motel room, an incriminating photograph, a wayward chicken. There is also a rawness and intensity of emotion unusual in a cartoon. The music (an urgent, passionate score byNicole Renaud, supplemented by snippets of Verdi, Ravel and others) creates a sustained melodramatic swoon that is enhanced rather than undermined by the exaggerated designs.

As always with Mr. Plympton, the plot serves as a scaffolding for the visual inventions. Like every other great animator, from Chuck Jones to Hayao Miyazaki, Mr. Plympton rewrites the laws of physics at will, but within a rigorous and coherent logic. He conjures a world of absolute improbability that, somehow, makes perfect sense.


Opens on Friday

Written, directed and animated by Bill Plympton; edited by Kevin Palmer; music by Nicole Renaud; art direction by Lindsay Woods; produced by Mr. Plympton and Desiree Stavracos; released by Plymptoons. Running time: 1 hour 16 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH THE VOICES OF: Sophia Takal (Ella), Jeremy Baumann (Jake/Carnival Barker), Alex Markowitz (Assassin), Sita Steele (Floozy/Vanna) and Jacob Steele (El Merto/Police Chief).

A version of this review appears in print on April 3, 2015, on page C6 of the New York edition with the headline: A Lusty Dreamscape Blends the Sensual and the Grotesque. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe