What ‘Marcel The Shell With Shoes On’ teaches us about documentary making

Hanna Flint | Soho House

Our columnist, Hanna Flint, shares the lessons we can learn about telling other people’s stories, from one of the most beautifully made animations of the year

Saturday 18 February 2023   By Hanna Flint

When I sat down to watch Marcel The Shell With Shoes On this week, I wasn’t ready to have my soul squelched by the sweet adventures of an anthropomorphic exoskeleton. Yet this gorgeous animation delivers more than a few profound statements about life, community and family, and the ethical dilemmas that arise when telling someone else’s story.

Of course, the precious, one-inch-tall shell is not real. Weeps. Marcel is, in fact, an earnest and resourceful young character invented by director Dean Fleisher Camp and Jenny Slate (who also provides his voice) for a trilogy of mockumentary short films they made while they were a married couple. 

In this subsequent feature-length film, co-written by the two and Nick Paley, the story somewhat blends the personal with the fictional. Camp plays a version of himself as a filmmaker staying at the Airbnb home where Marcel lives, having separated from his wife (he and Slate split in 2016). There, he begins recording and interviewing Marcel about his daily life, his philosophies (‘Guess why I smile a lot? Because it’s worth it!’) and his feelings about navigating the mammoth world of this property. 

The naturalism of their interactions paired with the seamless marriage of stop motion and live action has you fully invested in Marcel’s journey and his relationships. To misquote Harry Styles, ‘my favourite thing about this mockumentary is like it feels like a documentary.’ Every bit of fly-on-the-wall framing, digital focus pulling, crash zooming and wobbly camera angling was designed by cinematographers Bianca Cline (live action) and Eric Adkins (stop motion) to suspend your disbelief that this is a fictional world.

But as we learn more about who Marcel is and what the one-eyed shell has been through, the line between documentarian and subject becomes blurred. Camp’s character lives with Marcel, he’s recording his daily life and posting it to YouTube, and securing hundreds and thousands of views for the effort. Still, as much as Marcel is an open book, the filmmaker is closed off, which the little shell assertively questions. 

Hanna Flint | Soho House

Then there’s the fact that Marcel has become a mini YouTube personality causing his privacy – and that of his grandmother, Nana Connie (playfully voiced by Isabella Rossellini) – to be affected by overzealous fans. ‘It’s an audience, it’s not a community,’ a crestfallen Marcel says when searching for help in the YouTube comments.

Coincidentally, I watched a documentary right after seeing this delightful mockumentary that grappled with the ramifications of being the subject of non-fiction storytelling in far more depth. Subject, from filmmakers Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall, explores acclaimed films and docu series like Hoop Dreams, The Square and The Staircase, and examines how their commercial success and global attention impacted the lives of the subjects. 

Through candid interviews with the filmmakers and subjects, Tiexiera and Hall ask questions like: should subjects be paid for their contributions? Should filmmakers have personal relationships with subjects? And should there be a responsibility of care to subjects who might face adverse scrutiny, discrimination or danger by sharing their stories? 

With a seemingly endless hunger for dramatic documentaries and series, especially harrowing ones that involve violence and murder, these are pertinent ethical questions that require more nuanced interrogation than stock, black-and-white answers. But as audience members, we should also be mindful. I think about that line from Gladiator where Maximus, after violently and reluctantly dispatching a few fellow gladiators, bellows to the leering crowd, ‘Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?’ He’s calling out the lack of empathy in humans eagerly consuming barbarity and murder for sport. 

Similarly, an empathy gap can widen between viewers and subjects of the sort of non-fiction storytelling we binge-watch on Netflix or consume at the cinema. So, to a greater and lesser extent, Subject and Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, respectively, are strong reminders that when real people’s lives are used for entertainment, it’s up to the filmmakers to be responsible for them. It’s also up to us as the audience to watch responsibly.