Up until a couple of months ago you’d have been hard pressed to explain to me the point or the necessity of getting a Blu-Ray player, but there’s been a number of releases recently that have made me change my mind about the new format. A good deal of these have come courtesy of the Eureka label, including the exclusive releases of F.W. Murnau’s City Girl, which I aim to cover on this site soon, and Shohei Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods, which I’ve just reviewed as part of the latest Midnight Eye update. The UK-based distributor is now also in the process of upgrading some of the more popular titles from its Masters of Cinema range to exploit the medium’s fuller possibilities, with July’s releases including another classic Imamura title, Vengeance is Mine, which I reviewed on Midnight Eye when the original DVD came out a number of years ago, and René Laloux’s trippy 1973 animation Fantastic Planet. I wrote something about this for Twitch when the DVD came out, but since the new Blu-Ray version is considerably expanded from this original release, I thought the best way to go was to present my original review here in a slightly re-edited version, with added comments pertaining to this reissue. Here goes, then…
Back in 2006, Eureka was responsible for the UK DVD debut of René Laloux’s psychedelic animated sci-fi, Fantastic Planet (La Planète Sauvage), which represented the first time the company had dipped their toes into the animation pool with their Masters of Cinema series, and it was particularly refreshing to see a company out there with the belief that animators are just as eligible for cinéastic canonisation as their live-action counterparts. Until then, there had been, and in fact still is really, a general tragic dearth of DVD releases of non-American or non-Japanese animation, and if anything Laloux’s 1973 Cannes Grand Prix winner serves to remind us of the rich tradition in European animation that bridges the gap between these two extremes.
It is almost de rigeur to cite Hayao Miyazaki’s seal of approval on any slightly off-centre animated release, but the claim on the cover blurb of the Blu-Ray and DVD that this adaptation of Stephan Wul’s novel ‘Oms en série’ “can be seen to prefigure much of the work” of the director of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away still seems pretty apt: it’s easy to spot more than a passing resemblance between this film’s depiction of two warring races battling it out in a hallucinogenic alien landscape of bizarre vegetation and strange buildings with that of Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind.
The story charts the hostilities between the blue-skinned, red-eyed, web-eared Draags and the more traditionally humanoid but miniscule Oms (Nausicaa featured ‘Ohms’) with whom they share an antagonistic existence on the same planet of Ygam. One of the Om’s is plucked from his mother’s bosom as a baby by Draag girl Tiwa, re-christened Terr and raised as a pet. Tiwa is an indulgent keeper to Terr, nurturing him to adulthood and pumping him full of knowledge from the Draag’s shared information pool. The other Draags however, are complete shits, in one scene tying the hair of two tiny Oms together and forcing them to fight to untangle themselves. But soon Tiwa too becomes bored with her new plaything, allowing Terr to escape into the wild and share his knowledge with a tribe of wild Oms. But by this time the Draag’s are stepping up their plans to begin the merciless process of ‘de-omisation’ and rid the planet of their verminous competitors.
Blessed with an all-pervading psychotropic atmosphere and a wonderfully trippy soundtrack from Alain Goraguer’s not to dissimilar to the later work of Gallic retro-boppers Air, Fantastic Planet whisks you right back to the early 70s (the full soundtrack is included on the new Blu-Ray, a welcome addition, but I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to include it on a separate CD? If you want to listen to it now, you basically have to do so through your TV rather than a CD player, using up a lot of electricity and boosting your carbon footprint in the process. Maybe there’s a way around this, but I’ve yet to discover it). I hesitate to use the word ‘surreal’, because it has become so dulled by overuse as to become almost meaningless, but if there was an animated work that warranted such a label, it is this one. Be warned though – the drug-inspired and often highly sexualised designs complete with images of bare-breasted aliens will probably deter the more Victorian-minded from presenting this to their pre-teens as a Disney substitute. This is definitely one to be filed under the category of “adult art animation”.
That said, it is also doubtful whether most modern-day adults will pick up on the underlying metaphor. The humanoid ‘Oms’ and the domineering Draags were regarded at the time as a allegory for the Soviet Occupation of Czechoslavakia, although in this respect it is also worth quoting from Craig Keller’s brilliant essay ‘The Schizophrenic Cinema of René Laloux’, contained in the disk’s accompanying booklet, which makes the astute comment that “One might reflect on 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.” The film was in fact a French-Czech co-production made at Jiri Trnka’s studios in Prague (where the Japanese stop-motion puppet animator Kihachiro Kawamoto also served an apprenticeship earlier in the decade – in fact, as much as Terry Gilliam’s animated interludes for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Laloux’s film bears a distinct similarity in ambience and design to Kawamoto’s collage animation The Trip (Tabi), which also critiqued the Soviet invasion). In marked contrast to Kawamoto’s happy experiences in Prague however, the five years it took to complete Fantastic Planet were allegedly something of nightmare for the French animator, who was almost ousted from the director’s chair by various Czech rivals during the production.
All of this information, and a good deal more regarding Laloux’s background and that of his collaborator, the illustrator-musician-writer-filmmaker Roland Topor, is contained in one of Eureka’s customarily informative colour booklets, which at 56 pages is now double the size of the one included with the original DVD release. The Blu-Ray package also expands on the number of Laloux’s other short films from the two included first time round (his 1965 cut-out collaboration with Topor, Les Escargots, and a really intriguing cel-animated piece created long after his association with the illustrator had ended, this time realised with the staff of Pyongyang animation studios in 1987, entitled Comment Wang-Fo Fut Sauvé) to five.
The first of these shorts to be included, Les Dents du Singe (1960), is a real treat. Basically, the story of how Laloux got into the world of animation is pretty weird in its own right. He actually started off working at La Borde Psychiatric Clinic in Cour-Cheverny in 1956, a sort of progressive lunatic asylum in which the inmates were encouraged to participate in creative activities as part of their treatment. Laloux oversaw the first of these, Tic-Tac (1957), a live-action shadow puppet theatre in the vein of Lotte Reiniger and filmed in 16mm monochrome that somehow ended up on French television. This was followed by his first colour film Les Achalunés, shot using backlit pieces of tinted glass. Sadly, neither of these are included on the disk, although clips from Tic-Tac appear in the 27-minute French documentary from 2003 entitled Laloux Sauvage, in which Laloux gets to tell his bizarre life-story firsthand. Anyway, Les Dents du Singe (1960) was the last such collaboration with the clinic’s inmates, and the one that effectively propelled him into a new phase in his artistic career, marked by his fruitful association with Roland Topor.
Well, there’s clearly a lot to be said about Laloux’s idiosyncratic output, so I’d advise anyone interested to check out this great new release of a truly wonderful film. I ended my review of Eureka’s first DVD of this film in 2006 thus: “Having gorged myself on the contents of this beautiful disk several times now, I am left with an overwhelming appetite to see more of Laloux’s mesmerizing work in the animation field. His 1988 feature Gandahar sounds really intriguing… Anyone at Eureka listening?” Well, whether they were listening specifically to me or not (probably not, let’s face it), Eureka did end up releasing a DVD of Laloux’s final animated feature (btw, not only was Gandahar also animated in North Korea, but equally bizarrely, a certain Bob Weinstein is credited as the producer of the English-laguage version), and also his 1982 feature Les Maîtres du Temps. Perhaps these will be due for a Blu-Ray upgrade soon too?
As a quick postscript, I should mention that Stephan Wul’s 1957 novel on which Lalous based his animation is now available in an English-language translation from Creation Books. There’s a bit of info on Wul in the Blu-Ray booklet too. Apparently his primary profession was not as a science fiction writer, but as a dentist, a profession which he found considerably more lucrative despite the high regard his stories were held in (although let’s face it, no one is talking about the quality of his root canal work now, are they).