Bill Plympton’s swirling imagery, made from a combination of pencil and watercolor, has always been deeply alive to the boundless possibilities of film animation. Casually and effortlessly surreal, the worlds he creates on screen are in constant motion. His distinct aesthetic sensibility is immediately evident in his new film, Cheatin’, where his pulsing aesthetic perfectly reinforces the work’s emotional and psychological insights about the constant upheavals and disturbances that are unleashed by young love.
The plot is pure pulp, inspired in equal parts by the tropes and imagery of film noir, grand opera, and silent melodrama. Using no dialogue except the occasional grunts and moans of despair and pleasure, Plympton employs a rich visual vocabulary full of pictorial puns and metaphors to establish character, propel the story, and sweep the audience up in the film’s lush, romantic vision of love, betrayal, and redemption. It opens with the heroine, luminescent in a shimmering yellow dress and matching hat, gliding through what seems to be an endless arcade before arriving at a carnival at once sinister and inviting. The strident accordion music and gawking hicks at the fair give the setting a vibe reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman’s work, but when the heroine meets an impossibly buff young admirer who sweeps her off her feet, the scene positively vibrates with the swooning junkyard romance of a Tom Waits song. The couple soon marries in a musical montage worthy of Fellini or Fantasia.
Unlimited by the constraints of time, space, and physical plausibility, Plympton’s fantastic vision of an otherwise recognizable suburban world, where arcades and windows serve as dreamlike portals to other planes of metaphysical experience, mirrors the film’s thesis about love’s capricious ability to both open and close the doors of perception. After its euphoric beginning, Cheatin’ settles in to its main subject, the emotional and psychological upheavals engendered by adultery. As foreshadowed by the carnival crowd’s rough treatment of the heroine (a passionate but tender woman straight out of a Tennessee Williams play), a femme fatale soon brings temptation and sin into the newlywed couple’s edenic love nest. The film then takes on the music and narrative rhythm of opera, plunging into a series of moving visual and aural arias, before reaching a heartbreaking denouement.
Cheatin’ plays with perspective throughout, often fusing the viewpoints of all of the characters involved to create truly carnivalesque moments of ecstasy and dread. This is because Plympton is less interested in the specific actions and reactions of his characters than in the general yet unpredictable cycles of mania and depression that accompany the abandon and vulnerability of love. The film’s conclusion, which mixes fantasy and illusion in a desperate act on the heroine’s part to win back her husband, is a perfect metaphor for the delusions that love begets. Having tried and forsaken revenge against her philandering husband, the heroine meets a disgraced magician that offers to place her soul (eloquently represented by her sea-green eyes) into the bodies of his many lovers. The disturbing experiment works, combining fantasy and reality to save their relationship in an act of couples therapy that only art and its strange magic could generate.
The Midwestern setting, with its picturesque service stations and sleazy motels on the outskirts of town, gives the film an authentic air of desperation that grounds its moments of levity in a concrete world of loss and resignation. The precarious edge that separates misery from rapture is always visible, as Plympton strikes the perfect balance between peril and play that defines the tenuous bonds that unite all relationships. Doing so through animation only makes the experience that much more ephemeral and enchanting.