With “My Love Affair with Marriage,” animator Signe Baumane creates another dense personal narrative that expresses complicated concepts and ideas in images. Stuffed with irony, humor, Soviet history and musical numbers, her ambitious second feature (following 2014’s festival hit “Rocks In My Pockets”) boasts 30 singing and speaking characters (including a talking neuron that explains the biochemical processes of the brain) and about 200 non-speaking ones. Using hand-drawn characters animated against 3D hand-made sets and papier-mâché sculptures, it merges the origin story of an independent, artistic Soviet girl with an account of her biochemical processes at crucial moments in her life. A paean to gender equality and being yourself, the overall message is that we all want to love and be loved, but need to be accepted for the way we are.
Although inspired by Baumane’s life, the narrative unfolds as a roman à clef with invented names for real persons, and follows Zelma (voiced by Dagmara Domińczyk) from age 7 to 29 (or 1971 to 1993), on a socially-learned quest for perfect love and lasting marriage against the backdrop of historic changes in Eastern Europe. Zelma’s socialization comes not only from family and societal admonitions, but from a trio of winged creatures, the mythology sirens (voiced by the Trio Limonāde), who reinforce the ever-present woman-as-wife-and-mother and woman-requires-a soulmate stereotypes with tuneful melodies and pithy lyrics.
As a young girl, Zelma runs wild and free in the natural surroundings of Sakhalin Island, despite the disapproving whispers of the womenfolk around her. But when her family moves to Riga and she starts school, she’s ostracized for being different. “She’s not a girl, she fights,” taunt her classmates. As drawn by Baumane, Zelma stands out in a sea of identical-looking, identical-acting primary school girls and turns into a sharp-clawed cat when she is attacked or her temper is aroused.
The messages — overt and subliminal — that Zelma receives from her family and Soviet institutions about a woman’s role and duties are pretty typical for a young female of her time and place. What’s unique in this story, however, is the way Baumane shows the interaction of these messages with Zelma’s innermost biology and chemistry, sometimes contradicting and sometimes supporting the conventional wisdom she has been taught. Although the repeated cuts to the talking neuron (voiced by Michele Pawk) who explains and diagrams these processes start to feel a bit repetitive, they provide a whole different level of information and one that could only be expressed through animation.
As she gets older, Zelma continues to buck conformity (losing her virginity at 17 to an older painter), while still believing she should be looking for a soulmate. At university, she meets and marries needy, alcoholic artist Sergi (voiced by Cameron Monaghan), who undermines her at every step. Here, the information from the talking neuron is valuable, explaining why Zelma remains in this toxic relationship in spite of her cognitive dissonance.
When another hasty marriage, this time to Swedish artist Bo (voiced by Matthew Modine), doesn’t provide Zelma with the happily ever after she hoped to find, she starts to accept herself the way she is and acknowledges that she can be happy and fulfilled without a man to take care of her. To highlight the transformation of her mindset, Baumane shows Zelma silencing the sirens who have long been her interior voice and teaching them to sing a different tune.
While Baumane designed and animated her human and animal characters, as well as the maps that trace the boundaries of Zelma’s political world, she outsourced the biology segments to prize-winning Chinese animator Yajun Shi, resulting in a contrasting but compatible style. Years in the making, and including the crowd-funded support of 1685 individual backers, “Marriage” ultimately echoes the themes of Baumane’s earlier shorts and her first feature in questioning why women should have to please other people at the expense of their own dreams.