Th Overcoat Th Overcoat

The film may never be completed, but its story is mythical in animation circles. For four decades, Russian director Yuri Norstein and his creative partner — and wife — Francheska Yarbusova have been working on The Overcoat, an intricate cut-out feature based on the Gogol story of the same name.

Its on-off production is a tale of creative ambition and frustration, and Youtube culture channel Atrocity Guide tells it well in a new 45-minute video essay, which you can watch below. The video starts by outlining Norstein’s and Yarbusova’s earlier career at Soviet state studio Soyuzmultfilm, from propaganda shorts to the ageless classic Tale of Tales.

That last production sees the pair testing the limits of Soviet censorship, while their own marriage suffers from the demands of their work. Tensions personal and political run on into the making of The Overcoat, which stalls as the Soviet system collapses and the artists fail to adapt to new economic realities.

There’s an element of self-sabotage here, with Norstein routinely refusing support: when Wallace & Gromit creator Nick Park offers funding, he accepts only a batch of lightbulbs. The video argues, as others have done before, that completing the film may not even be the point anymore. So perfectionist are the pair that the ideal of an unfinished work may appeal to them more than the compromise of a finished one.

Atrocity Guide draws on existing profiles of Norstein, including the recent Japanese documentary Making the Overcoat. That film is worth watching to, not least for a remarkably awkward scene in which the documentary’s director, apparently drunk, harangues Norstein, telling him to hurry up and finish his magnum opus. “Enough,” laughs Norstein. “I understand.”

Image at top: “The Overcoat”