The Great Malaise

With its unique visual metaphors, subtle comic timing, and the sandpaper grit of cognitive dissonance, Lepage's darkly funny short captures a contemporary version of an age-old feeling.

A pencil drawing on lined yellow paper depicting an octopus with bright red boxing gloves at the end of each tentacle

It's coming up on two centuries since Thoreau wrote that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," and while the world has gotten louder since then, the desperation remains. It's a feeling that's difficult to depict head-on, but one that Catherine Lepage elegantly depicts in her 2019 short, The Great Malaise. With its unique visual metaphors, subtle comic timing, and the sandpaper grit of cognitive dissonance, Lepage's darkly funny short captures a contemporary version of an age-old feeling.

The narration in The Great Malaise could come from a job interview, a dating site profile, or a self-help seminar. Whatever the source, it's clearly a front, an attempt at constructing an image rooted in unyielding positivity. Lepage's script uses the language of social media, describing the carefully curated, aspirational self that we're encouraged to present to the world, and Miranda Handford's reading carries the weight of that forced enthusiasm. It's subtle at first, but eventually her exhaustion is unmistakable; what starts as a pep talk sounds increasingly like a statement read under duress, a false confession extorted by an image-obsessed society.

As Handford's voice starts to waiver, the film's imagery becomes decidedly less aspirational. Lepage doesn't fall back on typical depictions of anxiety or depression. Instead, she finds novel but instantly understandable images—a porcupine cautiously backing up through a balloon-filled room is one of the most memorable, but there's plenty more where that came from. And she doesn't give the easy out of a tidy resolution, either. It's a film that sits with its sadness and anxiety, preferring true recognition to false solutions.

The Great Malaise was created and released before the COVID pandemic, but if anything, its impact is deeper now than when it was released. After all, it's not like the last three years have done away with anxiety around purpose, belonging, and self-worth. If anything, that carefully curated self has only become more omnipresent, and the worries it suppresses have only become more potent. Lepage's film may not offer answers, but it does offer empathy—and a little of that can go a long way.

THE GREAT MALAISE

dir: Catherine Lepage

syn: In the voiceover for this animated short, a young woman attempts to describe herself, casting her life in the ideal light that society expects. The film’s imagery, however, tells a different story, poignantly illustrating the intense anxiety that comes with the quest for perfection and the pursuit of happiness. A film that’s both funny and moving, and above all, profoundly human.

2019