Cze / Fra | 72 min.
1.66:1 OAR anamorphic
René Laloux, 1973
THE DVD EDITION OF THIS TITLE IS NO LONGER AVAILABLE TO PURCHASE; NOW AVAILABLE AS A DUAL FORMAT (BLU-RAY + DVD) EDITION ONLY
René Laloux’s mesmerising psychedelic sci-fi animated feature won the Grand Prix at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival and is a landmark of European animation. Based on Stefan Wul’s novel Oms en série [Oms by the dozen], Laloux’s breathtaking vision was released in France as La Planète sauvage [The Savage Planet]; in the USA as Fantastic Planet; and immediately drew comparisons to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Planet of the Apes (both the 1968 film and Boule’s 1963 novel). Today, the film can be seen to prefigure much of the work of Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) due to its palpable political and social concerns, cultivated imagination, and memorable animation techniques.
Fantastic Planet tells the story of “Oms”, human-like creatures, kept as domesticated pets by an alien race of blue giants called “Draags”. The story takes place on the Draags’ planet Ygam, where we follow our narrator, an Om called Terr, from infancy to adulthood. He manages to escape enslavement from a Draag learning device used to educate the savage Oms — and begins to organise an Om revolt. The imagination invested in the surreal creatures, music and sound design, and eerie landscapes, is immense and unforgettable.
Widely regarded as an allegorical statement on the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, Fantastic Planet was five years in the making at Prague’s Jiri Trnka Studios. The direction of René Laloux, the incredible art of Roland Topor, and Alain Goraguer’s brilliantly complementary score (much sampled by the hip-hop community) all combine to make Fantastic Planet a mind-searing experience. The Masters of Cinema Series is proud to release Fantastic Planet on DVD in the UK for the first time.
by Craig Keller, 2006
That which suggests is superior to that which shows. Movies today show more and more. It’s paranoid dictator cinema. What we need is schizophrenic cinema.
– René Laloux (1929-2004)
René Laloux was born on 13 July, 1929, in Paris’s 15th arrondissement. His earliest years were marked by the placid concerns of a typical childhood. He absorbed with fervent fascination movies, comic books, fantasy stories, all the home-grown pleasures that might catch any Parisian boy’s fancy in that era before the Occupation, the Liberation, and the subsequent influx of American popular culture by way of dubbed Hollywood cinema and Donald Duck feuilletons. But ruptures seem inevitably to occur in artist-centred biographies, and when war finally broke out across Europe (and when, subsequently, Laloux’s father left home to take part in the Resistance), the idyllic comforts known by young René were replaced by pastimes rather less leisurely but not at all obstructive to the nurture of his creative temperament. Motivated and curious, he set out to supplement the family income, and thus took on at age thirteen an apprenticeship in wood-carving beneath an uncle who specialised in creating Gothic-style representations of the Pietà . One might earmark this stint as Laloux’s first commercial foray into the figurative arts, but he is likely to have begun to truly hone his expressive talents by attending a series of evening art classes each day after the close of the studio. The requisite cultivation of personal tastes would follow in the immediate post-war period when, reveling in everything up for offer in this city reborn, Laloux discovered theatre, literature, painting, — and, of course, the Cinémathèque. If not exactly transforming Laloux into a cine-devotee on the order of such contemporaries as Truffaut and Lachenay, Langlois’s institute still impressed upon René’s mind myriad relationships between the likes of the Fleischer brothers and the Lumières, Disney and Feuillade. Laloux was sufficiently inspired to participate in a local ciné-club, at one point helping to host a discussion between Jacques Becker and Georges Sadoul.
Adolescence — and independence — beckoned. Laloux left home to take a job as a wood-carver at a furniture factory in Brive-la-Gaillarde and, with that, inadvertently launched his life. During the stay in Brive, he fell in with a community of bohemian artists, then fell in love with a girl; staged ragtag productions of Molière with his friends, then turned his attention toward puppeteering. Any prolonged involvement with this last pursuit would be curtailed by the intervention of obligatory military service — although he did find a way to take part in a show with the puppeteer Yves Joly while on convalescent leave. This time spent recovering from both an appendectomy and a severe viral infection would be Laloux’s only holiday in the course of one and a half otherwise miserable years stationed in Austria, during which his antipathy for the army, and for any regimentalised existence, was given ample time to fester. His prospects upon discharge hardly promised a luxurious life, but he managed to reclaim some degree of freedom by taking a series of jobs that ranged from clerking in a bank to helping manufacture plastic bags.
Laloux’s desultory employment streak ended in 1956 when a friend suggested he apply for a watch position at La Borde Psychiatric Clinic in Cour-Cheverny. Founded in 1953, the institution at La Borde had become the testing ground for a number of important developments in the field of clinical psychotherapy — the most pivotal and enduring of which perhaps remains an overhaul of the antagonistic, quasi-penal approach to patient monitoring that, before La Borde, had been established as normal methodology in western “asylums.” La Borde’s system, by contrast, favoured an atmosphere that evoked less a Foucauldian vision of servitude and control than a borderless extension of the outside world itself: no locked doors, a regular schedule of group activities for patients, and a setting of expansive green that circled the main residence, a handsome assemblage of château-like quarters. Patients at La Borde (present in large part to receive treatment for depression) were unconfined, free to roam the grounds as they would and, as part of an overarching communal spirit, take part in the decision-making process with regard to the logistics of life at the clinic. The strides made at La Borde can be attributed to a like-minded liberalism at the ethical core of doctors Jean Oury, also the institution’s director, and Félix Guattari (d. 1992), who is perhaps best known in the English-speaking world for his collaboration with Gilles Deleuze on L’Anti-Oedipe, capitalisme et schizophrénie (The Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1972), the ground-breaking critique of Freud, Marx, and psychoanalysis; one notes that the notions of “deterritorialisation” and “flux” expounded upon in the work are of an obvious piece with the dehierarchised milieu of the clinic.1 Given René Laloux’s terror of fascism grand and quotidian (and his understanding that there is little use in differentiating between the two degrees), he seemed to have found in his employment at La Borde a perfect calling. Oury and Guattari were likewise pleased with the artistic spirit and sense of generosity that Laloux graced upon the patients; his workshops devoted to painting and shadow-puppetry were many residents’ favourite pastimes.
The enthusiasm of his charges seems to have fed back into Laloux’s own work during this period. Besides contributing to a Trotskyite revue in his off-hours, Laloux began to train his sights on the medium of film, and embarked upon a first series of cinematic efforts. The initial work, shot in black-and-white on 16mm by Jacques Brissot and titled Tic-tac (Tick-Tock, 1957), documented the patients’ shadow-puppet theatre; the developed footage would be edited by Laloux and the participants themselves. The film that would follow, Les Achalunés (The Achalunés, 1958 — Laloux described the title as a poetical, made-up designation in the tradition of Henri Michaux’s wordplay), was again shot by Brissot (this time in colour), and presented backlit pieces of tinted glass shuffled in patterns behind tracing paper in order to achieve a magical, dislocated effect. The successful execution of their formalistic vision provided the impetus for Laloux and Brissot to approach the composer Pierre Schaeffer and propose a collaboration that would explore the links between moving images and musique concrète. Although no film resulted from this contact, momentum for the efforts coming out of La Borde continued apace when Laloux learned that the film Tic-tac had been purchased for television broadcast. Upon hearing the news, he channeled the buoyant mood that had erupted among the patients and suggested the group try its hand at making a 35mm colour film. The results would comprise the work that became Les Dents du singe (The Monkey’s Teeth, 1960).
The new film would expand upon the strategy of collective creation established in Tic-tac even while initiating the “cut-out” aesthetic that could be found in Laloux’s work for years to come. Indeed, the scenario and all of the artwork that make up Les Dents du singe were fashioned by the clinic patients themselves. The opening of the film details in several minutes of black-and-white documentary footage the participants at work: seated around tables, they puff on Gitanes, discuss the storyline and make sketches. A narrator informs the viewer that each patient had devised a “récit” for a single character who would remain “his” or “hers” throughout the course of development, before a consensus could be reached with regard to which narrative threads should be woven into the final work. Unfortunately, the framework established by the film’s prologue stops short of documenting the most laborious part of production: the animation process. When preparation of the scenario and artwork had been completed, Laloux worked with Julien Pappé to instill life in the elements — nothing more complex than articulated paper cut-outs — by photographing them frame-by-frame with a camera positioned over an illuminated animation stand. Pleased with the relative speed afforded by this method of work, Laloux continued for years to experiment with paper cut-outs, developing the style into something of an artistic — and artisanal — signature. (It’s worth noting that in the years before his death, Laloux would turn his attention toward computer animation — another alternative to traditional cel animation, but one which, unlike cut-outs, would become something of an “industry norm.”)
Owing to the collective effort involved in its creation, Les Dents du singe revels in the surreal, and exhibits a stream-of-consciousness logic in which seemingly anything can happen.2 The laws of dramaturgy and physical reality have been wholly abandoned, and dialogue — a means of explanation, of contextualizing the aftermath of “effect” by proffering “cause” — has been absolutely banished from the film’s universe. A jagged-edged dentist puts a sullen patient under with sleeping gas. The patient enters a dream-state wherein the ideas of “teeth rooted to gums” and “patient rooted to dentist’s chair” swiftly transmogrify into “guests gathered around a table at a wedding party”… who are plucked one by one from their seats as though by the hand of God. The round table metamorphoses into a pit on a toothless gum, before mutating once more into a vagina dentata. Meanwhile, back in the “conscious” world, the dentist has extracted each of the patient’s teeth and boxed them up for shipment to what is presumably a mail-ordering customer. He then travels to the fringe of the banlieu and ditches his victim who, immediately awakening, realises what has happened and gives chase. Now enters the monkey. Pedaling through the background cityscape ringing a bell, a bike-riding simian (whose hue and stature suggest one of Bosch’s demons) materialises and signals a chain of “real world” shape-shifts. Pedestrians step inside a butcher shop and transform into cuts of meat; policemen enter a playground and change into pedestrians; and the patient-protagonist, hiding in a classroom from the cops (who have been pursuing the victim instead of the criminal, before their own transformative detour), conceals himself with an anatomical model which nevertheless covers only the left side of his body. Identity manifests itself as something incomplete, subject to constant reassessment. The patient returns home to stare into a medicine-cabinet mirror, and as evening sets in, the monkey unleashes his wrath on the dentist’s teeth.
The film won the Prix de Emile Cohl, France’s annual prize for domestic animation. At the ceremony, Laloux had the fortune of meeting Roland Topor, a seasoned cartoonist and graphic artist, whose work in the ruthless French satirical magazine Hara-Kiri he much admired. In turn, Topor thought quite highly of Les Dents du singe, and his enthusiasm conveyed to Laloux, who had by then left his position at the clinic, the plausibility of working with just such a professional artist for his next movie. The two would first collaborate on a film that in hindsight suggests a combination of Edward Gorey and Terry Gilliam, with something of the spirit of Chris Marker.3 Les Temps morts (Dead Times, 1964) is a narrated-poetic-animated essay that explores through archival documentary footage and inky, black-and-white drawings by Topor the atrocities of war and, as inverse to André Malraux, man’s destiny. The overtly philosophical (and justifiably cynical) tone of the film certainly makes the work stand apart from the vast majority of animated cinema; seen from a 21st century vantage, its mood and visual style (Topor’s cross-hatching technique essentially embodies “conflict”) seem to anticipate the tone of the modern graphic novel. Although the illustrated elements here were used in a more static manner than the découpés of Les Dents du singe, Laloux and Topor would return to the heavy articulation employed in the earlier film for Les Escargots (The Snails, 1965), a more straightforward narrative work which all the same continues trawling the theme of a world gone suddenly mad. A consternated farmer attempts to bring his vegetable rows back to life, in the process letting rip a succession of “classical comic gags.”4 When the farmer’s tears of frustration finally do the trick, and giant greens shoot skyward, all the munching snails grow robust too; havoc ensues as the mammoth gastropods terrorise the populace. Time passes and, mysteriously, the snails begin to die off, arranging themselves into a vertical graveyard of shells enmeshed in cobwebs. Daily life resumes, the farmer coaxes new vegetables from the soil, and as the first carrots begin to sprout, a group of menacing rabbits peeks over the horizon…
The success of Les Escargots encouraged Laloux and Topor to embark upon a feature-length film. Although the pair initially entertained the notion of adapting to the screen an epic literary work, they eventually decided upon something more modest in length and scope, and cast their attention on a novel by the French science-fiction writer Stefan Wul.5 Wul’s novel Oms en série (Oms in Series, 1957), about a race of enslaved earthlings, or “Oms,” struggling against their giant-sized “Draag” captors, appealled a great deal to Laloux’s fantastical — and humanistic — sensibility. To adapt Wul’s vision to the screen, Laloux planned again to work with paper cut-outs, but by integrating them now into a process closer to cel-animation: motion would be conveyed by constantly reorienting non-articulated drawings of the elements, rendered in whole from different angles or positions as necessary. Understanding the relative tedium of this working method, and unwilling to devote several years of his life to a single project, Topor capped the bulk of his involvement at the pre-production stage of adapting the scenario and creating the visual look. Laloux therefore approached the Czech animator Josef Kabrt to oversee the technical work and the execution of illustrated cut-outs based on Topor’s designs. It should be noted that, despite Topor’s objection toward taking part in the animation work (and his subsequent happiness at having avoided spending five years in Czechoslovakia), the French illustrator was nevertheless ambivalent about handing his concepts over to someone else. However, upon seeing portions of the work-in-progress, Topor abandoned his uncertainties with regard to the film and embraced the idea that his work would now reach an audience larger than it ever had in the past. Kabrt, for his part, brought to the project a sharp technical instinct — he had steered Laloux toward the idea to animate the film with discrete, un-jointed elements — that the French filmmaker found representative of the high standards of Czech animation. This impression, coupled with the political “thaw” then underway in Czechoslovakia, influenced Laloux and his producers to undertake the long project as a French-Czech co-production and, in doing so, alleviate some of the financial burden necessitated by the film. The craftsmanship of the finished work speaks for itself, but the co-production that brought the film into being didn’t go entirely smoothly. For Laloux, being the only Frenchman among an all-Czech team proved extraordinarily trying. At one point, the Czech producers, spontaneously inspired to toe a nationalist party-line and subvert the film, made clear their desire to remove Laloux from the project and anoint Kabrt the director — an idiotic plan which, of course, would have effectively sabotaged the co-production. In the end, the Czechs’ threats amounted only to threats, and Laloux came away from his years at Jiri Trnka Studios happy both with the finished film and at having made such an abundance of close friendships.
La Planète sauvage (The Savage Planet, 1973 — compared to the English export title “Fantastic Planet”, the French version connotes the viewpoint of the oppressed) tells the story of two sociologies — one extraterrestrial, the other remarkably humanoid — and the way in which the one has enslaved the other. The humanoid race, or Oms, have been kidnapped from an Earth-like planet by the Draags, a towering blue-skinned species practiced in the arts of manipulating matter and transcending their physical bodies. Although the Draags spend a large portion of their time exploring the far reaches of the creative imagination in a state of blissed-out passivity they call “meditation,” they are seemingly unaware of the Oms’ own consciousness and all the pain inflicted on these creatures by “domestication”. When one of the Oms (named “Terr” and voiced by Jean Valmont6) absconds from his play-prison with a Draag tutorial headset, the fire of knowledge — most specifically of the scientific disciplines — is kindled in the minds of the Oms, and a rebellion ensues. The Draags, shaken by this reversal of the Oms’ relative atavism, subsequently lash out against the tiny race with a campaign of genocidal attacks (gassings and all) styled “de-omisation.” Fearing total annihilation, the Oms race against time to construct a fleet of rocketships. Ultimately, the humanoids escape and, having acquired from the Draags’ headset an immeasurable education (or merely unlocked a suppressed, and multivalent, expertise?), set off to engage in their own bodily “transcendence”.
It’s not going far at all to uncover in La Planète sauvage barely veiled references to the benefits of getting high — whether that means taking drugs (cf. the vapour-inhalation, and all the shape-shifting that transpires before dilating eyes), exercising the libido (cf. the cock-shaped rockets, and the headless — therefore ego-resistant? — statues used in the extraplanetary mating ritual), or, simply and literally, meditating transcendentally. Conceptions of man and his relationship to the one-ness of the universe have been embedded even within the film’s “alien” nomenclature. One might reflect upon all the connotations inherent to names like Terr (“terre” is French for “earth”), Oms (“hommes” = “men,” “mankind”), and Draags (“drogues” = “drugs”), although searching for a more complex allegorical interplay between these three referents is unlikely to result in anything that can be said to scan sensibly. It’s probably to La Planète’s merits as, above all, an “experiential aid”, that the film avoids the sci-fi cliché of a proxied, connect-the-dots allegory, and settles instead on presenting a broad, even simplistic, message or moral ideal — “the mind’s true liberation,” to quote The Fifth Dimension — in a mind-blowingly original way. In Laloux’s film, style itself lends truth to beauty, draws dignity out of the easy lesson. (In fewer words, and to quote another luminary of the zeitgeist, “the medium is the message.”)
Naturally, when talking about the dignity or beauty of “Laloux’s film”, one could more accurately characterise its totality by saying Laloux and company’s film, so integral are the collaborators’ visions to the movie’s psychotropic texture. Reverberating ever outward, the influence of Roland Topor’s art design in La Planète sauvage extends into modern-day comix, children’s storybooks and, perhaps most notably, the oesophageal species of the Pikmin series of video games by the Nintendo team of Miyamoto, Hino, and Ibe — even if the Seventies’ lysergic edge is detectable only in trace amounts. The film’s soundtrack is of the mind-expansion era in no less degree. One might have been tempted, a few years after the picture’s release, to examine transcriptions of Alain Goraguer’s wah-wah’d arpeggios and Jean Guérin’s open-chorded synth washes for an expired “use by”-date. But, recontextualised by our culture as belonging to a “period” idiom, the score has stood the test of time. Like big-band or lounge-croon, psychedelic orchestration can sound as fresh as ever in the 21st century, given capable arrangement and a measure of freaked-out uniqueness in the production. Indeed, among Alain Goraguer’s chief strengths is his ability to arrange and produce music that is at once absolutely of its time and, through its meticulous construction, absolutely timeless; one can hear this quality as much in La Planète sauvage as in his work with Serge Gainsbourg on such records as the brilliant Gainsbourg percussions (1964) or France Gall’s Gainsbourg-penned hit “Poupée de cire, poupée de son” (“Wax-Doll, Sound-Doll,” 1964).
Laloux often remarked that if one were to search for a single common theme that recurred through his work, one would do well to focus in his films on all the repeated and myriad denunciations of stupidity. In the cinema, however, perhaps nothing has ever seemed so stupid as small oeuvres cut short — and this became part of his legacy too when, in early 2004, René Laloux suffered a massive heart-attack and, in the span of an instant, left behind nine films, and the strangest planet of all.7
1 In a conflux of sorts, Deleuze and Guattari’s book would make an appearance (with no small amount of thematic resonance) in Thomas Pynchon’s oft-neglected masterpiece Vineland (1990). Pynchon’s novel explores the loss and perversion of ‘60s ideals, the synchronous expansion of mind-control and Reaganomics, the entrenchment of hollow nostalgia (the novel has been frequently, and cursorily, misread as a permutation of the very phenomenon it reflexively critiques), and the poisonous surfacing of simulacra of idealism. In one passage, a punk musician named Billy Barf finds himself performing at a wedding attended by a conglomeration of Italian mobsters: “Fortunately Ralph Wayvone’s library happened to include a copy of the indispensable Italian Wedding Fake Book, by Deleuze & Guattari.” It’s not surprising that the author of Gravity’s Rainbow (1974) and Mason & Dixon (1997) would happen into a thematic alignment with Laloux — one which manifests itself (spooky actions at a distance) not just in having touched base with Guattari, but in glossing both the mutation of animals into gigantic form — cf. the octopus Grigori that plagues the former novel, and the torpedo (“electrick Eel”) in the latter — and the collision of death with sex in Gravity’s Rainbow’s V-2 rockets.
2 One might note that Jacques Rivette had begun filming his first feature, the proto-Pynchonian Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us, 1961) in the same era — Rivette, who would take narrative fragmentation and collective improvisation to its limit in Out 1 and Out 1: Spectre, then turn his focus on the nature of storytelling, fictions, cinema, and psychoanalysis, in Céline et Julie vont en bateau: Phantom Ladies Over Paris (Céline and Julie Go Boating / Céline and Julie Lose Their Minds: Phantom Ladies Over Paris, 1974).
3 Like Marker, Topor was also a man of many hats. In addition to his work as a writer and illustrator, he starred in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night, 1979), Volker Schlöndorff’s Un amour de Swann (One of Swann’s Loves, 1984), and Raul Ruíz’s Trois vies et une seule mort (Three Lives and Just One Death, 1996).
4 The tenets of which are discussed at length in the accompanying book for The Masters of Cinema Series’ The Complete Buster Keaton Short Films, 1917-1923 box set.
5 Born Pierre Pairault, Wul changed his name for three reasons: (1) “Pairault” sounded too similar to another name that resounds throughout French and world literature: that of fairy-tale fabulist Charles Perrault. (2) “Stefan Wul” was a more unique appellation which might help readers mistake him for an American (a commercial boon). (3) Through use of a pen-name, Pairault could avoid any professional indignation provoked by the residence of a sci-fi writer within the altogether hallowed circles of… French dentistry.
6 Among other films, Valmont appeared in René Clément’s Is Paris Burning? (1966) and alongside Jean-Pierre Léaud in Luc Moullet’s masterful Une aventure de Billy le Kid [One of Billy the Kid’s Adventures] / A Girl Is a Gun (1971).
7 After La Planète sauvage, Laloux’s directorial talents would grace a few more pictures only: Les Maîtres du temps (1982; collaborator: Jean Giraud, aka Moëbius), Comment Wang-fô fut sauvé (How Wang-fo Was Saved, 1987; collaborator: Philippe Caza), and Gandahar (1988; with art by Caza again, and English translations by Isaac Asimov).
Craig Keller lives in Princeton, New Jersey, USA.