By Bob Clark
More and more nowadays, it seems as though one of the most common ways to be introduced to a great movie is by another one altogether. It’s nothing new, exactly– there’s plenty of films that famously pay homage to great works and influences past, sometimes through borrowing elements of narrative (Star Wars from The Hidden Fortress, Reservoir Dogs from City on Fire) or visual substance (For a Few Dollars More from Yojimbo, sometimes almost shot-for-shot). Occasionally, screenwriters and directors go so far as to drop the names of the films they’re pickpocketing from in dialogue directly, leaving so many pop-culture reference laden soundtracks in their wake (without which the combined works of Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino and Joss Whedon would be about enough to fill a Post-It note). Perhaps most interesting are the moments on film where characters get to enjoy the experience of going to the movies themselves, or in our modern media-age simply take the time out to sit down and watch one on television. Godard made the experience of sitting in an audience and watching a film a centerpiece of Vivre Sa Vie, as Anna Karina’s streetwalker tearfully attends a screening of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, only an hour or so before we will be forced to bear witness to her character’s equally tragic end. That moment, like the best of all moviegoing-within-a-movie moments, used a film from the past to comment on the substance of the film we ourselves are watching in the present, creating a bridge of cinematic memory for those well versed in its history, or at the very least unveiling the film for new eyes that have never heard of it before (or ears that have never seen it).
One such experience for me came in the 2000 release of Tarsem Singh’s The Cell, a rather unfairly underrated little genrebender that combined the hallucinatory alternate reality games of The Matrix with the hardcore serial-killer proceduralisms of Se7en, pitting FBI manhunters and dream-diving scientists in a race against time to rescue the last remaining kidnapped victim of a notorious murderer by delving into the nightmarish landscapes of his mind. Not a great movie, by any means, but an impressive visual smorgasbord that at the very least took wonderful advantage of the potential for a story set in a series of sci-fi dreamscapes better than the vanilla corporate-espionage of Inception ever bothered. With surreal imagery owing equal parts to music-videos (Singh’s previous calling-card) and modern artists like Damien Hirst, it’s a film that goes out of its way to impress its viewers with as much visual ingenuity as possible, but never sacrificing in the way of taut dramatic pacing (even if the screenplay itself screams of one cliche after another so well-worn you could discover oil in the footprint it leaves behind). And yet, for all its cool imagery, the film manages to upstage itself early on with a brief moment where our subliminally-adventurous heroine (a pretty, but distracting Jennifer Lopez) does some late-night channel surfing and stumbles across a broadcast of Rene Laloux’s feature debut, La Planete Sauvage, better known in English as “Fantastic Planet”.
The culmination of the animator’s collaboration with art-designer and co-writer Roland Topur, the film not only marks a departure for Laloux in terms of length and substance, adapting a 1957 French science-fiction novel by Stefan Wul, but also represents a bold step forward from the impressive, but largely clumsy and static short works he created both with and without Topur in the years leading up to their 1972 masterpiece. Right from the first moments, we see Laloux treating the animated image with a far more dexterous and ambitious hand than he had in the technically restrained likes of Les Temps Morts and Les Escargots— beginning with a frightened mother running through an alien wilderness from some unseen pursuer, he juggles multiple disciplines to create an engaging opening action-setpiece. Cutting from close-ups of the woman’s distraught face to longer takes of her scrambling with infant in tow, and masking those cuts with foliage rushing past her in foreground, a far more immersive sense of environment is created than in the previous films, offering as three-dimensional an experience as one is likely to get from animation that is still largely achieved with still illustrations and intricate cut-outs. As soon as a giant blue hand blocks her path and indelicately toys with her unto a brutally casual death, a sense of scale and out-of-this-world context is added to the mix, allowing us to understand the basic ruleset of the film’s premise on a simple and immediate level even before we’re given an inch of exposition in dialogue or voice-over.
Though very little of the film that follows is quite as layered as this in its approach to the animated image, what remains is nonetheless breathtaking in its audaciousness and imagination, particularly in how it seeks to marry perversely violent and playfully sexual content into sequences and designs just bizarre enough to distract the audience at times from the rather shocking stuff being put to screen, like an errant thought from the Id masking itself in trench-coat and fake mustache to slip past the drooping eye of the Super-Ego– the art of animation as grand cinematic gestalt. Following the orphaned child of the mother in the opening chase as he is adopted by a young, but giant blue girl on an utterly alien world, we gain a firsthand knowledge of the division of power between the dominant species of the Draag and the animal existence of human beings, split between the domesticated pet-life in Draag households and the wild freedom of “Savage Oms” (not far removed from the French word for mankind) in the wilderness of the civilized world. Early on, the choice is made clear between demeaning, dehumanizing comfort or liberty at the cost of all manner of safety and security at the hands of the hostile landscape, the efforts of Draag exterminators and fellow human beings themselves, vying for power both within and without kindred tribes.
At the same time, the rough physicality in the lives of the Oms is contrasted with the more abstract and esoteric existences of the Draag, who routinely pursue meditations that distort their bodies in “Chimeric visions” and astrally-project their consciousnesses onto distant orbs to pursue strange “alien nuptial” rites with visiting alien beings. It is in this duality that Laloux and Topur’s mis-en-scene really pays off, hewing its own brand of cartoon realism with the illustrator’s rough, sketchy art-style, and emphasizing that look with the human beings of the film, while affording a somewhat cleaner, more bright and colorful look for the Draags. Their worlds have similar styles, but clear enough differences as well, with a florid, rounded and soft organic look for the planet’s wilderness that belies the absolute danger lurking underneath every twisted curve, and a more sharply hewn and symmetrical design for that of their alien oppressors’ homes and public arenas. Of special visual weight is the senatorial space where Draag leaders discuss the problem of the Oms– a small, intimate round-table discussion placed inside a cube whose sides project the faces of speakers to a huge, round auditorium of listeners, the public and private housed within one another like so many Russian dolls.
The difference between the hard-hewn externalized life of the humans and the leisurely inner-lives of the Draags is clearly illustrated and becomes a central fulcrum of the plot in the matter of their alien meditations and auto-psychic learning methods, wearing glowing headsets and receiving audio-visual lessons projected into their very minds. When the young orphan boy accidentally gains knowledge himself during these subliminal lessons, and escapes from his gilded cage into the tribes of Savage Oms with the tools of their oppressors, Laloux and Topur call a whole host of mythological and sci-fi archetypes into reference, with one human’s Promethean effort to win knowledge from the Draags spurring a mass exodus across their world, and in the end off its planetary bounds itself, building their own micro-civilization of futuristic cities and rockets like William Cameron Menzies’ Things to Come at miniature scale done for Disney and Dali alike. There’s more than a little of that films’ hectic pacing and sliding-scale tonal shifts throughout Fantastic Planet as well, as the director casually coasts over so much in the way of utterly brutal acts of violence committed by Draags, Oms and the natural world alike, much in the same way that all of them have grown accustomed to their mutual barbarism. That isn’t a big deal when we’re observing fantastical portrayals of wild animal creatures feeding on Oms or whole tribes taking down monsters on their own, but it becomes a little harder to stomach when Laloux glosses over the largescale gassing of human lives in scenes that resemble something like an animated Holocaust.
What he lingers on, instead, are the more tender moments of sensuous pleasure both psychic and physical, finding ways in which they intermingle in intimacies that stretch beyond mere terrestrial bonds of passion. Human beings take glowing communion and run off naked into the woods to join together in long-shots, like fireflies in the night, is just one of the eloquent little moments that speak to the sweeter potentials of life, bright points in the minimalist landscapes of impersonal absurdities and grotesque cruelty. It’s something that stands out in his continuing filmography in general, putting as attractive a face on the heroes and heroines who face the bizarre alien landscapes of this and his next two films (his heroines especially tend to have the same kind of French high-fashion model couture look to them, with high cheek-bones and faces streamlined almost to the point of art-deco). Though at times it can run the risk of adding too much glamour to the rugged terrains of humanity throughout the film (that pearl-lined choker on the wild Om girl is a little much, no matter how cute), there’s something very calming about the way that Laloux in this film and those to come continually mixes the erotic with the exotic, in subtle and plainspoken terms. There’s nothing pornographic about these films, and La Planete Sauvage especially– indeed, all the nudes and titilation amounts to less risque stuff than anything you’re likely to see in a Bosch painting– but the slick professional elegance of it all in full motion breathes something more than life into his particular brand of animation. It breathes of something worth living for.
Next week: 1982’s Les Maitres du Temps (“Time Masters”)