Fantastic Planet (La planète sauvage)

Fantastic Planet
(La planète sauvage)
Director: René Laloux
Screenplay: Roland Topor andRené Laloux (based on the novel by Stefan Wul)
Stars: Jennifer Drake (Tiwa), Eric Baugin (Young Terr), Jean Topart (Master Sinh), JeaJean Valmont (Adult Terr / Narrator), Sylvie Lenoir (Additional Voices), Michèle Chahan (Additional Voices), Yves Barsacq (Om), Hubert de Lapparent (Additional Voices), Gérard Hernandez (Master Taj), Claude Joseph (Additional Voices), Philippe Ogouz (Additional Voices), Jacques Ruisseau (Additional Voices)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1973
Country: France / Czechoslovakia
Fantastic Planet Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Fantastic PlanetFantastic Planet (La planète sauvage), the only feature-length collaboration between French director René Laloux and Polish-Jewish writer-illustrator Roland Topor, is an utterly unique film. It was a rare animated feature to come out of France, even though the medium of animation was developed to a large extent there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by pioneers like Émile Reynaud and Émile Cohl. There had been only about a dozen or so French animated features produced at that point, and as a result much of the work on Fantastic Planet had to be outsourced to Czechoslovakia’s Jiří Trnka Studio because there was so little infrastructure in France. The film almost didn’t happen, as it suffered under a lengthy and difficult five-year production that saw at least one hiatus when the filmmakers ran out of funds, as well as interruption by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the subsequent institution of new political censorship (amazingly, the film emerged unscathed by the communist censors even though many have read it as a damning allegorical indictment of the Soviet treatment of its satellite countries).

Based on the 1958 novel Oms en série by French science fiction writer Pierre Pairault (writing under the name Stefan Wul), the film takes place on a distant planet called Ygam that is home to the Draags, enormous blue humanoid with round red eyes and fin-like ears, and Oms, which for all intents and purposes look and behave like ordinary human beings (the name is purposeful play on the French word for men, hommes, which phonetically sounds exactly the same). The Oms are the pets, playthings, and victims of the Draags, who think nothing of killing them even though they are also capable of treating them with sentimental affection. In other words, the Draags treat the Oms exactly the way we tend to treat all the other creatures on Earth: at our discretion. This means that the Draags aren’t one-dimensional villains or monsters, but rather reflections of our very human nature, or at least the part of our nature that blindly sees ourselves as superior and therefore thinks nothing of the suffering of other creatures if it benefits us.

The protagonist of the story is Terr (Jean Valmont), an Om who is kept as a pet by a young Draag named Tiwa (Jennifer Drake), the daughter of an important leader named Master Sinh, who adopts him after his mother is accidentally killed by some of her friends while playing (“She’s stopped moving. Now we can’t play with her anymore” are the film’s blandly chilling opening lines). Terr grows up as Tiwa’s pet, and his worldview is profoundly altered by his being able to listen in to the telepathic education she receives via a large set of headphones, which essential equips him with Draag language and scientific knowledge that all other Oms lack. That makes him invaluable to the wild Oms who live free in an abandoned park and are plotting a revolt against the Draags, which necessarily requires the development of technologies to protect themselves and to kill the Draags, who frequently engage in a process of “de-Omization” to cull the Oms’ numbers.

The allegorical implications of Fantastic Planet are quite obvious, even as the specific correlations are vague enough to open it up to a number of different readings. The clearest message is against thoughtless violence, as the Draags’ casually cruel treatment of the Oms contrasts directly with their advanced technology and their apparent spiritual capacities, which we see in their daily meditation sessions that, as revealed in the film’s final moments, are much more than just achieving inner peace. The Draags are capable of logic and reason and emotion, yet because they view the Oms as fundamentally inferior (their physically diminutive size being the primary signifier), they feel nothing in mistreating them. The violence inflicted on the Oms is frequently horrifying, especially when the Draags engage in what appears to be full-on genocide near the end of the film, yet they do nothing that we do not do, as well (the human tendency toward violence and self-destruction had been the subject of Laloux and Topor’s first collaboration, the fascinatingly ghastly 1965 short film Les temps morts). Like all meaningful science fiction, Fantastic Planet uses a fantastical scenario to make us look at ourselves and question our own ways and—hopefully—strive to be better.

The film’s philosophical and literary aspirations, as well as its visual surrealism, are thoroughly grounded in its aesthetic, which relies on a highly stylized form of cut-out animation (wherein paper cut-outs are animated in stop-motion fashion by hand). Topor’s fantastical character and environmental designs are done in a style that is reminiscent of medieval woodcuts or engravings, with heavy reliance on thousands of hand-drawn lines that provide both intense detail and a sense of aesthetic distance (Laloux describes the style as “quite Rabelaisian”). Unlike the smooth, lifelike style pioneered by Walt Disney and emulated by so many others, there is no attempt at realism here, but rather a self-conscious sense of pictures being put in motion. At times the images are all but static, while at other times there are multiple elements in motion, albeit always in a way that feels expressly animated. It is somewhat jarring at first, especially for those not used to this style of animation, but it gels so completely with the film’s narrative terrain that any other style would seem ill-suited. The same could be said for the avant-garde jazz score by Alain Goraguer, which is so funky and otherworldly that it surpasses any charges of datedness.

Unfortunately, Fantastic Planet was the only feature-length film to come from the collaboration between Laloux and Topor (“We were made to work together,” Laloux would say later). Laloux had studied painting in school, and he found himself working as an intern at the Clinique psychiatrique de La Borde, where he started experimenting with animation using shadow puppets on rods and paper cut-outs. By the time he met Topor, the latter had already gained some degree of renown and notoriety for co-founding the Panic Movement, an absurdist-surreal art movement named after the god Pan, in 1962 with Chilean film director Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo) and the Spanish surrealist Fernando Arrabal. An intriguing multi-hyphenate, Topor worked with Lalous on two animated short films—the aforementioned Les temps morts and Les escargots (1966)—before launching into the ambitious project that would become Fantastic Planet. The likely didn’t realize what an impactful film they were making or that, so many decades later, it would still be an object of cult adoration that has influenced numerous writers and artists. One can only imagine what else Laloux and Topor might have produced had they continued to collaborate, rather than going their separate ways.

Fantastic Planet Criterion Collection Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
Audio
  • French Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English
    Supplements
  • Les temps morts (1965) and Les escargots (1966), two early short films by René Laloux and Roland Topor
  • Laloux sauvage, 2009 documentary
  • Episode of the French television program Italiques from 1974 about Topor’s work
  • Interview with Topor from 1973
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Michael Brooke
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateJune 21, 2016

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Criterion’s transfer was made from a new 2K digital restoration of the original 35mm camera negative by Argos Films under the supervision of Florence Dauman (who directed the 2009 documentary Laloux Sauvage, which is included on Criterion’s Blu-ray) and colorist Fabrice Blin. The image, which is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, looks substantially different from previous DVD releases, as the overall color palette leans much, much heavier toward a blue-green hue and color saturation is much deeper and richer. Detail is superb, which really helps us appreciate the style of animation with its heavy use of fine black lines to depict depth and contour. The image has also been digitally cleaned up quite a bit, removing most signs of age and wear while still maintaining a healthy filmlike appearance. Criterion offers both the original French-language soundtrack and an alternate English-language track. The French track, which was remastered from the 35mm magnetic tracks and restored is presented in lossless Linear PCM and sounds quite a bit better than the English Dolby Digital track, with Alain Goraguer’s memorable score sounding particularly good.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Several of the supplements included on Criterion’s Blu-ray have appeared on previous DVD releases of Fantastic Planet, includingLes temps morts (1965) and Les escargots (1966), two early short films by René Laloux and Roland Topor, and Laloux sauvage (2009), a 26-minute documentary that consists primarily of an interview with Laloux, although it also features some face time with producer André Valio-Cavaglione, who commissioned Laloux to make Fantastic Planet, as well as clips from a number of his films, including the amateur work he made while interning at the psychiatric hospital and his subsequent traditionally animated sci-fi films The Time Masters (1982) and Gandahar (1988); and a trailer. New to Criterion’s disc are two archival pieces about Roland Topor: a 53-minute episode of the French television program Italiques from 1974 that profiles Topor and his work up until Fantastic Planet and a brief 3-minute interview with him from a 1973 episode of the French television series Pop deux.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Argos Films / The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



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