By Bob Clark
As we move into the final stretch of Rene Laloux’s creative output on film, we run into a few little snags in terms of appreciating them in available video. Though his final feature, 1988’s Gandahar, is thankfully available both in R2 DVD and in various online destinations with a helpful set of English subtitles, there doesn’t appear to be as much in the way to help those wishing to view his last shorts from around the same time, How Wang-Fo Was Saved, or The Prisoner, all three made with the assistance of his final collaborating art-designer, Phillipe Caza. In the case of the first short, we at least have the short-story from author Marguerite Yourcenar to provide a basic formula of the story, and the actions onscreen make everything pretty clear even without that assistance. An almost supernaturally talented painter in the Orient is called to the court of a stern, heartless Emperor distrustful of the power of art, who sentences him to death. The painter’s assistant, Wang-Fo, attempts to fight back against the cruel ruler and is beheaded. As a last request, the artist is allowed to paint a final landscape, to which he is magically transported, sparing him from death, to a world in which his loyal assistant remains alive and well.
For a short, it’s surprisingly well rendered, with the same full breath of fluid animation that Laloux exhibited in his previous feature, Les Maitres du Temps, and would soon put into practice in his next and final feature. Furthermore, his pairing with Caza on this film looks forward to the far more florid partnership they shared on Gandahar, and helps put some of its eccentricities into better context. As the first of the director’s films since Les Escargots to take place in some odd kind of reality (a hazy, mythographic version of Asia from the imagination of the West) and not some far-off alien planet, we get to see Laloux’s sensibilities brought back to the grounding instincts of terrestrial locales and civilizations, reigned in however slightly by the subtle limitations of representing peoples and places that have actually existed, in some shape or form. Most of all, however, it offers a beautifully personalized depiction of the director’s brand of artistry, creating whole and wholly enchanting environments out of nothing but pen, ink and subtle motion, as well as a defining mission statement on the power of art to evoke and sustain life, even in tyranny. For an animator whose work routinely explored worlds dominated by one form of dystopia after another (Fantastic Planet‘s transcendental Draags, Time Masters‘ various all-powerful political and psychic bodies), the kind of despotism on display in How Wang-Fo Was Saved is not only the most realistic of all his dictatorships, but also the most grounded in human motivations, which helps make the artist’s victory over the Emperor that much more satisfying.
La Prisionere, his next short in 1988, marks a return to the more static animated practices of his previous efforts, as well as a much shorter running time (indeed, it makes the short just prior to this one look even more like the feature-quality effort that it is, and makes one wonder if it mightn’t have been a pilot for a longer work of some kind). With the partnership of artist Phillipe Caza, however, we have a very different kind of visual experience than there was in Laloux’s early experiments with Roland Topur, where the illustrator’s Saul Steinberg-esque style captured the director’s surrealistic vision while injecting a more abstract quality to each still image. Caza’s more grounded, realistic approach owes more in common to that of fellow Laloux-collaborator Jean “Moebius” Giraud, who like Caza got his start creating sci-fi and fantasy comics for Metal Hurlant magazine (known in America as Heavy Metal). Visually, he gives a more concrete, though no less florid edge to a paper-thin story of a pair of children who enter a castle and observe various unusual alien happenings, but that only makes the actual substance of the narrative, as much as there is, feel all the more mysterious to behold. Priest-like beings teleport from parapet to parapet, time passes quickly from season to season, and a bevy of naked Amazonian women commune with the oceans. The details are there for us, like the children, to bear witness to, and piece together for ourselves, as much as we can. It is Laloux at his least grounded and restrained by traditional storytelling principles, save for the near-documentary oddity of Les Temps Morts, and something akin to a surrealist painting in halting, stuttering motion.
All these qualities stand in stark contrast to his final collaboration with Caza, and the final feature film for which Laloux would act as director (he would later serve as screenwriter on 1998’s Eye of the Wolf). Based on Jean-Pierre Andrevon’s novel, Gandahar stands perhaps as the director’s best-known film after 1972’s La Planete Sauvage, due partly to being released in the United States by Miramax, albeit in an absolutely butchered form under the title Light Years with an incongruous dub-cast including Glenn Close, Bridget Fonda and Penn & Teller (one wonders how you would actually tell when the latter was speaking) and a translated script with embellishments by Isaac Asimov, not to mention a few nips and trims that robbed the film of some of the most sexually provocative material of Laloux’s career. It’s those very edits that make that version of the film notorious nowadays, especially since it’s that material which helps make Gandahar as noteworthy and interesting as it is, providing occasional diversions from what is altogether one of the less interesting stories of the director’s work. Indeed, what we have isn’t very far from your basic Bond film or space-opera– the perfect, blue-skinned peoples of the paradise-planet of Gandahar find themselves under attack from a race of robots that zap them with into stone in order to capture and carry them across a portal into an unknown future. An all-female council under the benevolent rule of Ambisextra (who looks as though her evolutionary traits came courtesy of the costume-designers of Lang’s Die Nibelungen, with her head’s wingspan) sends the young, pink-skinned special agent Sylvan to investigate the mysterious attacks, before it becomes necessary for the population to go to war, or else evacuate.
Along the way, Syl will come into contact with a population of genetically malformed outcasts from Gandahar, romance a pretty, half-naked blue-girl named Arielle, and travel through time itself in order to destroy an existential super-brain, each episode feeling a little more haphazard than the next. Events don’t occur with the same kind of urgency or dramatic weight as in Laloux’s previous films– indeed, even the news of an impending robotic invasion barely seems to awake much more than the cock of an eyebrow from Gandahar’s ruling elite, who strut about their anthropomorphic-castle with the placid, unconcerned ease of comfortably sedated supermodels. Matters of life and death are rather casually observed by the film’s heroes and villains alike– only at the end, when victims are zapped by petrifying lasers, do we see exaggerated postures of agonizing defeat, which appear more at home on the stage than in animated form, and give the film’s battles the feeling of being rotoscoped after a troupe of method-acting mimes. Even the ease with which Syl and Arielle fall in love has a rather strangely automatic rush to it, with little more romantic conflict than your average hentai, the two of them hooking-up after surviving an encounter with les hommes metale as though they had nothing better to do.
In a sense, perhaps they don’t– death comes so frequently in the film during its various, ecologically florid battles that it makes life in all its various, surreally imagined forms feel all the more precious to behold. Laloux has always paired a great deal of creative energy into both the full flora and fauna of his landscapes and the sheer brutality with which they survive, or don’t (Fantastic Planet began with a half-naked woman being murdered by giant hands in front of her mewling infant, for crying out loud), but Gandahar represents the director depicting a civilization going to war as though they were going about cultivating a largescale, hostile garden project, with aerial bombers planting robot-eating plants and giant sea-crabs tearing whole armies apart with their claws. Between them and the mutants taking charge at the end, there’s a hint of the same kind of primitives-vs-technological empires motifs that Lucas put to film in Return of the Jedi, and that Cameron would later follow in Avatar (so many unclothed blue people flying about, as well). The forces of nature find themselves under attack and mounting defenses throughout the film in ways that underline their organic properties, and make those fragile contours of the flesh that much more valuable. So when Syl and Arielle disrobe and share post-coital bliss under the stars and triple moons after being rescued from the robotic armies and their egg-like prison by a giant creature thinking them to be their young, it all comes across less as erotic wish-fulfillment and more as another chain in the planet’s circle of life.
Less convincing is the way in which the film’s narrative rests, as in Les Maitres du Temps, on a rather curious time-paradox, though Laloux takes the time to set things up here far more than in the previous film. Mutants distort tenses in their everyday language, the giant evolving brain-matter of “Le Metamorphis” switches from benign ally to senile villain a thousand years hence, and prophecies and mysterious clues alike are dropped well in advance to their being unraveled late in the game of a technology-filled landscape of the future. Forgetting the fact that, like nearly all cinematic depictions of time travel, the temporal pretzel-logic doesn’t make very much sense (go into the future and defeat a time-traveling enemy, and they could still wind up attacking you again in their past– or something like that), it robs the movie of an urgency that’s already sapped by the comfort and ease with which the Gandaharians live as a matter of natural habit. If there is one thing that makes the film stand out from Laloux’s other films, it’s the way in which the natural world is almost wholly placid and relaxed in its relationship with civilization, posing little to no threats when compared to the ravaging technological and scientific enemies of Metamorphis and his metal-men. The indigenous peoples of the planet live in an idyllic symbiosis with their world that’s a little hard to take seriously, charming fish out of the water by playing on the flute and nursing animals newly born from flowers with from their own breast, to match the later moment where man and woman hatch from their egg to be groomed as dinosaur offspring– a world in which man and nature infantilize one another to equal degree.
It may be difficult for the more cynical stomachs to digest, but at the end, there’s a quaint poetry to the way that Laloux’s treatment of the natural world works here, a gradual softening that comes in steps with his previous films. There were always quaint, magical moments in the wilderness of each planet he visited that stood out amongst the perversity and danger– the crystal forests that shattered from stray whistles in La Planete Sauvage, the flowering bouquets of telepathic cartoon-characters and inter-dimensional demigods in Les Maitres du Temps, and in Gandahar an entire planet that seems almost perfectly-designed to create and sustain life, along with all the other genetic-designs of their world. It’s a world as immaculately kept as any garden, a world worth defending, if not quite one that can be believed in.