Calamity (Calamity, une enfance de Martha Jane Cannary)

France (2020) Dir. Rémi Chayé

If you’ve never heard the name Martha Jane Cannary before, and you are of a certain vintage then the first word of the title of this vivid French animation provides a huge clue about her more famous sobriquet. And not a single song about Windy Cities or Secret Loves in sight…

1863, a convoy is travelling across western America to Oregon. When Robert Cannary is injured, his eldest daughter Martha Jane steps up to take over their carriage. However, convoy leader Abraham assigns his son Ethan to drive instead. Keen to do more, Martha Jane teaches herself how to use a lasso and ride a horse, even making her own trousers for comfort and convenience, upsetting the conservative mindset of the convoy.

After Ethan teases her for being a girl, Martha Jane cuts her hair, determined to prove herself, supported by Samson, a soldier who helps the convoy follow the correct route to Oregon. But Samson disappears with possessions belonging to the convoy party, and Martha Jane is accused of being his co-conspirator. To prove everyone wrong, Martha Jane heads off alone to find Samson and retrieve the stolen goods.

Let’s be honest, if you heard of an animated film depicting a period of America’s wild west history and one of its many famous characters, you would assume it would come from the US, not France but here we are. This would also account for the liberties taken with the historical accuracy regarding Martha Jane’s life story but it isn’t like Hollywood hasn’t committed the same sin in the past.

Under the purview of animator turned director Rémi Chayé, the story of the young girl who would become known as Calamity Jane has been repurposed to fit the important and topical message of female empowerment. In reality, Martha Jane didn’t receive her legendary nickname until her early 20s – here she is a 12 year old girl, but her feminist credentials are already blossoming and on display.

We join the story practically in medias res, with the convoy settled into its long journey. Robert Cannary is already a widower, but instead of six children only Martha Jane, Elijah, and Lena are with him here, their mother having since passed. Before she died, Robert made a promise to his wife he would start a better life with the kids in Oregon, framing the sentimental import of the journey for him as a parent.

Right from the start, Martha Jane is shown to be a spunky, string willed young girl with little regard for gender norms in terms of job allocation. She yearns to pitch in with the “men’s” jobs but is told by both sexes she should behave like a lady, dress like one (dresses only, no trousers), and perform menial, servile tasks. Whether Martha Jane could ride as well as any man or control a carriage is irrelevant, girls should know their place.

Ethan is also posited as Martha Jane’s nemesis from the start, full of his self-importance due to his father being the leader. Just to refer back to the historical accuracy point, Abraham sports a black stovepipe hat and a beard sans moustache. It is also hinted Ethan may have a thing for Martha Jane but his male ego being shattered by her rival skill set incurs his anger not his affection.

The arrival of Samson to the convoy upsets the dynamic in a big way. First, his military rank and knowledge of the area earns him the adoration of the group, and in pointing out they were going the wrong way, embarrasses Abraham, who feels his authority slip away. Second, Samson encourages Martha Jane to pursue whatever jobs she likes and endorses her wearing trousers too, displaying a progressive attitude as incongruous as the French language of the cast!

Maybe I’ve watched too much anime but Martha Jane riding off alone to find Samson and getting into a number of scrapes and adventures, all the way showing a maturity and resourcefulness beyond her years is reminiscent of many a work from Japan. Whether it is outsmarting a conman, befriending a wealthy mine owner, and pretending to be a boy to avoid capture, Martha Jane experiences more in 83-minutes than most people would in a lifetime – including the real Martha Jane!

But cinema is there to entertain as well as educate and inculcate, and certainly this film covers all of these remits. A stirring adventure romp, Martha Jane overcomes soldiers, Indians, mother nature, and faces near death, all with the company of a horse named Bacon and Samson’s dog, Pik. Whilst her intestinal fortitude is regularly challenged, this also provides many opportunities for Martha Jane to put her dexterity and newly learned skills to good use.

Certainly, this is a rousing and efficacious way of getting its primary message across that conforming to so-called gender roles is specious and narrow minded, and its U rating affords it the scope to inform younger minds of this important moral. That the veracity of the story is tenuous may not matter, just as long as those people who know Doris Day’s iconic portrayal of adult Calamity Jane in the classic 1950s musical don’t expect to see the same characterisation here.

However, likely to cause greater divisive conversation is the presentation. The art style employed by Rémi Chayé is one of eye-catching minimalism – people, objects, and landscapes have no outlines to define them, whilst the colour scheme borders on the psychedelic, using pink for the skies and mauves for the clouds, and browns and blues for the grounds and rock faces. Character designs are decidedly rough yet still charming, though close up resemble something created in MS Paint circa 1993.

Yet none of this hampers our enjoyment of Calamity. Once you get used to this unique visual style you don’t notice it; if anything it enhances the magic of the film. A stonking, smartly written and engaging parable to appeal to audiences of all ages.

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