Fantastic Planet (La planète sauvage, 1973)/De Profundis (2007)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Réne Laloux
Director/Screenwriter: Miguelanxo Prado

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The realists and the impressionists are at it again. No, we’re not in 19th century France or Nazi Germany. Our battle is in the very commercial realm of animated film. Here’s part of a comment from a Serbian IMDb reader about the recent Spanish film De Profundis: “A pretentious must-not see. This is not an animated movie. Unless you think of animation as two similar but different shapes of a body joined together by a computer animation, and than (sic) put in a loop.” Putting aside the fact that there was no computer animation used in this film, this comment clearly shows the influence of Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks computer animation on the viewing tastes and expectations of moviegoers. Looking at the changes in animation between this film and 1973’s Fantastic Planet, and the maybe coincidental fact that I found the earlier film in a dumpster (!), will tell you a lot about how post-modern art is being eclipsed once again by the human inertia toward literalism.

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Fantastic Planet, a Palme d’Or nominee and winner of a special jury prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, creates a Dali-esque planet to which human beings, called “oms” (hommes), have been introduced, like an invasive species of plant or animal. The film begins with a female om clutching a baby running feverishly to try to escape some menacing force. Her fear and concern for her child are palpable. In the end, however, she is raised in the air as her child watches her dropped over and over until she will never move again. Pan out to reveal several, blue-skinned, reptilian giants, children of the home race of Traags who were playing and accidentally broke the om. One of them, Tiwa (voice of Jennifer Drake), pities the baby and takes it home as a pet. Her parents disapprove of her plans to give him a Traag name, so she names him Terr, after his home planet of Terra. So now we know the name of the story’s narrator (Eric Baugin).

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Terr is Tiwa’s close companion, cradled by her everywhere and able to listen in on her school lessons through a set of headphones downloaded with all of the advanced knowledge of the Traags. But both are growing up. Tiwa no longer plays with her toys and pets. Terr decides to run away and drags Tiwa’s headphones with him. He falls in with a band of wild oms who live in a nearby park and shares the Traag knowledge with them. When a group of oms kills a Traag who was trying to step on them, the government decides to carry out a massive campaign to de-om the state. The oms, using the knowledge they gained from the headphones, decide to build a rocket and fly to the planet’s moon, called the Strange Planet, to be free. There, they learn a crucial secret of the Traags that they can use to attain recognition and equality on the home world.

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The highly imaginative renderings by the relatively modest (by today’s standards) design and animation department pay little heed to the physical laws of our real world, maintaining realism only for the oms and standard bilaterally symmetrical biology for the Traags. Other creatures, plants, and land formations show no such respect for realism, lending a weird otherness that the script furthers with a made-up vocabulary for Tiwa’s lessons on the complex history, science, and culture of the Traags. The animation is a little stiff, but not in a distracting way.

The film muses on how a highly intelligent race could literally sever mind and body by positing that the Traags spend most of their time in meditation. That meditation, in which the mind represented by a head floating in a bubble, is actually necessary for procreation shows that even in an animated fantasy, the French believe everyone has an obsessive preoccupation with sex. The bare-breasted and naked female oms and Traggs certainly show that tendency in the animators.

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The environmentalism of the time, particularly with regard for animal rights, is a major theme. Treating sentient creatures like pets, exterminating them like vermin, and doing the equivalent of pulling the wings off a fly as a form of recreation underlines the folly of human hubris over the natural world. Reverence for the mind over the body can lead to species suicide. The reasons for this divorce are clear from a very original scene of giant, but fragile statues in human form dancing as a prelude to sex and then falling to pieces. Ultimately, the fanciful Fantastic Planet says humility and frailty must be the price for life.

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De Profundis pretty much sums up my profound emotional experience of this sad fairytale told using the beautiful, haunting pastel paintings of its creator Miguelanxo Prado. This wordless feature, scored with an ethereal mix of music and sound effects by Portuguese composer Nani Garcia, tells the tale of a seascape artist living on an island with his cello-playing wife who accompanies a fishing boat one day to sketch their work and the creatures they draw from the ocean. In horror, the crew brings up an eel—a bad omen—which they toss back. Nonetheless, a storm builds, and an enormous wave scuttles the boat, sending all hands to the bottom of the ocean. The artist, however, is taken in hand by a mermaid, one he imagined in a painting, and shown many of the underwater treasures that have made their way into his art and the art of his country. Eventually, they come upon an underwater city, which the mermaid tries to dissuade the man from approaching. There, he remembers his life on land and can no longer remain underwater as a man.

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De Profundis hearkens back to an approach called limited animation. The commenter from Serbia objected to, for example, the cellist moving her hands, bow, and head in a repetitive loop. But in one hauntingly beautiful scene, the camera moves us into an empty room in the artist’s house and toward an open window. The long, white curtains flutter so realistically (reminiscent of the blinking eyes in the otherwise still-photo film La Jetée), I wondered if they were live-action imposed into an animated frame. This short sequence shows clearly that limited animation was a choice Prado made to draw us into his paintings much as the artist was drawn into the fanciful underwater world of his mermaid.

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The images Prado shares are colorful and evocative, and he takes care to allow his images to shimmer in wavy underwater distortion. His creatures, like his deep-sea lantern fish, are accurately drawn, yet used in a very dynamic way as a menace to the artist as they circle him, their sharp teeth threatening from perpetually open jaws. Yet, Prado also creates his own kind of wonder. The fishermen bait their hooks with glowing balls of music a young boy sings for them—a true siren’s call for their quarry.

The direction is flawless, as Prado takes his camera through the artist’s studio, down stairs, outside with the kind of meticulousness of a master scene setter. He introduces whales as the cellist’s friends early in the film even as he sets the scene for the cruelty nature will inflict on her and her beloved husband. The whales return by film’s end, and with them, a new storm of tears fell from my eyes. This is simply one of the loveliest, most moving films I’ve ever seen. l

  • Greg F spoke:
    18th/11/2009 to 4:49 pm

    I haven’t seen De Profundis but as I said on your FB update I have seen Fantastic Planet and what a mesmerizing film it is. Great write-up and I’m anxious to see De Profundis now too.

  • Jandy Stone spoke:
    18th/11/2009 to 6:10 pm

    Fantastic Planet has been on my to-see list for a while, but your write-up has convinced me to move it higher; I hadn’t heard of De Profundis before, but those stills look great, and it sounds like something I’ll really enjoy. There’s a lot to be said for hand-drawn / painted animation, and I hope that films like these continue to be made. Just because we have excellent computer animation these days doesn’t mean other forms of animation are obsolete (I’d say the same for stop-motion, as I’ve been watching a good bit of that lately).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/11/2009 to 10:22 am

    Jandy – There are still many forms of animation around, but I fear that they are not getting the mass consumption Disney etc. films are. I’ve been watching a lot more animation lately, and there are really so many great artists/animators out there doing their thing. I’m ready to stick up for them any day of the week.

  • Jandy Stone spoke:
    20th/11/2009 to 1:28 am

    Yeah, I’ve been actively seeking out less mainstream animation lately – it’s a wonderful art form. I’m looking forward to having five animated film nominations at the Oscars this year, but I’ve got to admit, I’m not particularly hopeful that they’ll go for any really offbeat choices (like A Town Called Panic or Mary and Max, though perhaps a Coraline or Fantastic Mr. Fox might sneak in – sorry, told you I’d been on a stop-motion kick lately). We’ll see.

  • Doug Bonner spoke:
    22nd/11/2009 to 9:52 pm

    So glad I can read your posts from the other side of the Great Firewall of China. The mere mention of FANTASTIC PLANET brought back the heady days of bongs and midnight movies. This was a great post, so insightful and literate. I must see DE PROFUNDIS now!

  • Stephen spoke:
    22nd/01/2010 to 6:57 am

    Marilyn, I was wondering if I could link to this review on my blog. I’ve been writing some pieces on animated films and I would like to climax with a post of links to my favourite reviews.
    I do think your site is one of the best film blogs on the net.
    Thanks.

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