Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët – Jolies ténèbres (Beautiful Darkness)

It’s no secret that I love the French and the way they treat comic books. This graphic novel kept being recommended to me by various engines (Goodreads, Amazon) until I couldn’t ignore it anymore. After browsing a few reviews, I was sold. Don’t let the cute art fool you, this is one hell of a dark story!

jolies tenebres

JOLIES TÉNÈBRES
by Fabien Vehlmann

English title: Beautiful Darkness
Published by: Dupuis, 20019
Hardcover: 96 pages
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: He’s coming! He’s coming!

Kerascoët’s and Fabien Vehlmann’s unsettling and gorgeous anti-fairy tale is a searing condemnation of our vast capacity for evil writ tiny. Join princess Aurora and her friends as they journey to civilization’s heart of darkness in a bleak allegory about surviving the human experience.  The sweet faces and bright leaves of Kerascoët’s delicate watercolors serve to highlight the evil that dwells beneath Vehlmann’s story as pettiness, greed, and jealousy take over.  Beautiful Darkness is a harrowing look behind the routine politeness and meaningless kindness of civilized society.

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beautiful darkness“Anti-fairytale” is the most accurate description I can think of, so well done, blurb-writers.  With a cover like that (or the English one, pictured on the right), and warnings about this story’s darkness, it isn’t hard to imagine that the larger of the two characters pictured is probably a human body. This suspicion turns into fact after only a handful of pages – and that’s when the real horror begins.

Aurore had just invited Hector for tea when suddenly reddish goo drops down on them and Aurore barely makes it out of her home – the now dead girl’s body –  onto dry land. She ends up next to the corpse of her former apartment (if you can call it that) along with many of her friends and acquaintances, all of whom look like dolls and puppets and things from a child’s toy collection – or a child’s imagination… Together, they try to build up their civilization from scratch, collecting food, building shacks, and keeping good manners alive.

All of this sounds very cute and the drawings and colors give the same impression. The decision to write a story in such stark contrast to its art was a brilliant one if you ask me, as it hits all the more home when these creatures cannibalize each other, send someone to certain death, or watch others succumb to illness without so much as batting an eye. To give you but one example of the seriously dark twists, have a look at this hungry ballerina trying to get some food by pretending to be a baby bird:

jolies tenebres birds

There are scenes far worse than this, believe me. As the young girl’s corpse decays and the seasons change, fewer and fewer of the little pixies are left. But this isn’t merely a collection of cute little creatures dying left and right (though it is that too), it’s the story of Aurore, the good-hearted girl at the center of everything. Despite her best efforts to build a society, to keep everyone fed, to be fair, and to establish friendly relations with the neighbouring woodland creatures, she has to learn that life sometimes just sucks and stabs you in the back whenever you’re not looking.

Starting as a lovely, innocent, even naive young girl, she ends up as a princess of revenge. Although I liked her best of all, the other  characters are worth mentioning too. Take the guy who seems to do lots of work but secretly “delegates” every job to some other poor soul. Or the pretty princess whose selfishness threatens to kill half the population. Or the disfigured cast-out whose fate just makes me want to cry. Also, the baby everybody seems to have forgotten. The birds, hedgehogs, bats, and ants are the opposite of what you’d find in a Disney movie. Not only do they refuse to sing, they will gladly gobble you up if you cross their path. Not to forget about other human-sized folk that might live nearby… The characters in this story show just how quickly people are willing to turn on each other in a difficult situation, how fast we devolve to base survival insticts, how easily we’re willing to kill.

jolies tenebres aurore

Beautiful Darkness can be read as a series of terrible events, or as the brutal coming-of-age tale of one young fairy tale creature. An interesting theory is that the dead girl’s personality literally spilled out of her after dying, and that the little pixies represent aspects of who the girl was – her naive dreams, her romantic hopes, her secret cruelties… But whether you read it in little chunks or devour the entire book in one sitting (I dare you not to!), it is exactly the anti-fairytale it promised to be. And as I still tremble with horror, I already catch myself eyeing the book to pick it up and give it another go.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Absolutely excellent!

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3 thoughts on “Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët – Jolies ténèbres (Beautiful Darkness)

    • Dina says:

      I felt exactly the same. When I read it and went “WTF” every few pages, my boyfriend kept staring at me like I was insane, asking “Aren’t you reading a kid’s book there?” All I could do was slowly shake my head…
      I had high expectations but they were surpassed by far. I think it really may be the contrast between sweet, colorful art and the dark substance matter.

      Like

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