Fantastic Planet: Gambous Amalga

Fantastic Planet essay

It says something for the continuing potency of René Laloux’s debut feature Fantastic Planet (or Wild Planet, a more literal translation of its French title, La planète sauvage) that, over four decades after its May 1973 premiere, it remains more or less unique. Its peculiar universe, designed by Roland Topor and realized by a team of Czechoslovak animators in Prague, is instantly recognizable from virtually any freeze-frame, and the film as a whole is so rich, strange, and sui generis that nothing has emerged since to retrospectively blunt its impact. It’s a completely thought-through science-fiction vision, ranking alongside Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Dune, Akira, and The Fifth Element, most of which were made many years later, and all of them on far greater budgets.

Laloux had had a varied career up to this point, including a teenage apprenticeship as a wood-carver, a spell as an amateur puppeteer cut short by compulsory military service, and various unfulfilling jobs followed by chance employment as a counselor at the revolutionary Loire Valley psychiatric clinic La Borde. There, he organized numerous creative workshops for the patients, and crafted his first 16 mm short film, Tic tac (1960), out of their shadow puppetry. Despite the film’s unconventional origins, it was bought for French television, spurring Laloux to attempt something more ambitious. Shot in color and on 35 mm, Monkey’s Teeth (1960) continued his collaboration with La Borde’s patients, and when it won the Prix Émile-Cohl for the best French-made animated film of its year, Laloux met the writer and graphic artist Roland Topor at the ceremony.

Nearly a decade younger than Laloux, Topor was already established as a cartoonist and a rising name in the avant-garde: shortly after his first meeting with Laloux, he cofounded the Panic Movement with Fernando Arrabal and Alejandro Jodorowsky, named after the god Pan and intended to make surrealism as shocking as it had been in the 1920s, before its imagery and ideas were co-opted and diluted by the mainstream. Beginning by staging intentionally scandalous live performances, all three men later moved into cinema, although Topor’s participation in that medium was more of a dalliance than that of the others, and he never directed anything himself. However, he wrote the 1964 source novel for Roman Polanski’s disquietingly paranoid The Tenant (1976), appeared in Dušan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1974) and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979, as the lunatic Renfield), and forged a regular partnership with the director Henri Xhonneux, which produced a satirical TV series (Téléchat ) and the bizarre feature film Marquis (1989), whose Topor-designed characters include the Marquis de Sade and his talking penis, affection-ately named Colin. Recognizing each other as kindred spirits, Laloux and Topor agreed to pool their distinctive talents on a new animated short, Les temps morts (1965), an antiwar polemic inspired by Topor’s savagely satirical cartoons. Their next film, the surreal apocalyptic fantasy Les escargots (1966), more directly anticipated Fantastic Planet in style, technique, and content, and won several festival prizes. Producers Simon Damiani and André Valio-Cavaglione of Les Films Armorial then proposed that Laloux and Topor attempt a full-length animated feature, an ambitious plan under any circumstances but especially so in a country that had no infrastructure to support such a project. Despite France’s important historical contribution to the medium (Émile Cohl was one of the earliest animation pioneers), the number of French animated features made before the 1970s was only in the single digits, and most of those were based on children’s fairy tales or popular francophone franchises such as Asterix or Tintin. The only previous French animated feature that was even vaguely similar to Fantastic Planet was Walerian Borowczyk’s Mr. and Mrs. Kabal’s Theatre (1967), which was barely seen when it was released, and not very often thereafter. That said, it’s a reasonably safe bet that Laloux himself saw it, since 1967 was also the year in which the Fantastic Planet project joined forces with Borowczyk’s friend and mentor Anatole Dauman, whose company Argos Films was a major player on the international art-house circuit, with the back catalog of work by Robert Bresson, Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker to prove it.

However, although Argos had previously dabbled in animation in the form of the 1959 Borowczyk/Marker short film Les astronautes, they too had no experience with animated features, which is why Fantastic Planet ultimately became a French-Czechoslovak coproduction. In Czechoslovakia, animation was both much more generously funded (not least through subsidies from the Ministry of Culture) and taken more seriously as an art form. Major animators such as Jiří Trnka, Karel Zeman, Břetislav Pojar, and Jan Švankmajer were able to sustain remarkably uncompromising creative careers, even occasionally producing full-length features: Trnka and Zeman had already made several apiece. The contract between Laloux’s producers and the Jiří Trnka Studio was signed in 1967, against a backdrop of what initially appeared to be a political and cultural thaw. Production itself proved unexpectedly troubled, with an early hiatus in the first half of 1968 to let the producers raise more money from France, and then in August the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia threatened to derail the project altogether. Given that Fantastic Planet’s surreal and suggestive content was precisely the kind of thing that paranoid apparatchiks instinctively regarded with suspicion (during the “normalization” period that followed the invasion, several films were banned for alleged but often unproven allegorical content), the production could easily have been forcibly shut down, but for the fact that it was bringing in hard currency from France. As it was, it didn’t resume until 1969, and the film eventually took four more years to complete.

Fantastic Planet was inspired by the 1957 book Oms en série, by the science-fiction writer Stefan Wul (born Pierre Pairault), one of a number of near-contemporaneous French sci-fi novels exploring dystopian alternative worlds (Pierre Boulle’s highly influential Planet of the Apes was another). The literal translation of the title is “Oms in a Series,” but this misses the pun of a word that’s phonetically indistinguishable from hommes, French for “men.” So there’s little doubt whom the tiny race of humanoid Oms is meant to represent, but the crucial difference between their planet (Ygam) and ours is that they are not the dominant species in intelligence, scientific advancement, or brute strength. Instead, Ygam is ruled by the giant Draags, blue-skinned, red-eyed, web-eared, shape-shifting creatures who regard the Oms as little more than animals. The Oms are adopted as domestic pets, they’re made to fight each other (often to the death), and their population numbers are kept firmly under control. In other words, the Draags treat the Oms in much the same way that Homo sapiens treats its own perceived inferiors: ruthlessly, with the occasional bout of sentimentalizing, as when pet Oms are kept in structures akin to dollhouses, dressed in silly costumes, and taught to perform tricks.

While the highly intellectualized Draags favor meditation over physical labor, the Oms make up for in native cunning what they lack in other areas (in an early scene, the Draags discuss whether this really constitutes “intelligence”; later, the Oms counterbalance this by debating the value of knowledge). When one of the Oms, Terr, is adopted as a pet after his mother is accidentally killed by being dropped from too great a height (“Now we can’t play with her anymore,” lament her tormentors), his new owner, a female Draag named Tiwa, inadvertently bestows on Terr the ability to absorb the Draags’ scientific secrets via a telepathic headset. Among other things, this enables him to decipher previously incomprehensible written warnings about an imminent “de-Om” (a strategic culling of Oms to regulate their numbers) and develop technology to counter this—to which the Draags’ reaction is to attempt full-blown genocide—in one of the most disturbing sequences, gassing the Oms as they hide themselves in pits. Innumerable allegorical messages are there for the plucking, be they about politics, intolerance, the use of euphemistic language to mask morally abhorrent decisions, or the simple pleasures of getting high. Through its gaudy colors, motif of ingestion via liquid or smoke, and images of Draags floating blissfully in their own personal bubbles, the film rarely lets us forget that it emerged from the era of psychedelia, even if it was made behind the old Iron Curtain.

However, the film’s real strengths lie in Topor’s bizarre designs and the way that character designer Josef Kábrt, background designer Josef Váňa, and their animators brought them uncannily to life by the simple but very effective method of combining paper cutouts and in-camera dissolves, the better to preserve Topor’s characteristic crosshatched drawing style while keeping the budget as low as possible. Topor’s direct contribution to the film was largely finished before production proper began—indeed, for much of the time Laloux was the only non-Czechoslovak working in the studio, and experienced some tensions and even a threatened mutiny as a result.

The film’s landscapes may lack the multiplane perspectives of a (far more expensive) Disney feature, but they’re otherwise wholly convincing in their visual dream logic, festooned with unexpected crystalline outcrops (glinting as they catch the light, with tinkling sound effects to match) and inexplicable organic eruptions. Ygam’s flora, fauna, and geology are described in a slide-show-like lecture whose incomprehensible terminology is nonetheless hypnotically mellifluous (“gambous amalga”). Tiwa taunts her pet with controllable, fully functioning clouds complete with rain and lightning. Mysterious boxes with attractive designs harbor deadly secrets when opened. “Duels” are fought by opponents who strap vicious snapping creatures to their chests with green cummerbunds. New clothes are woven directly onto the body by a circle of goo-exuding mollusks. A desert resembles a coiled (and living) intestine, fearsome plants whip and nip at unwary travelers, and, in a particularly Toporesque touch, even the most innocent-seeming creature is likely to possess a weirdly sexualized inner life. The film is perfectly suitable for children, who’ll most likely be equally unfazed by that and the Oms’ casual nudity: it’s parents who’ll be squirming uneasily in their seats.

By rights, Alain Goraguer’s languid score should have pinned the film firmly to its production era, a perennial problem bedeviling the creators of notionally timeless universes, which is why so many fall back on familiar nineteenth-century orchestral idioms (2001, Zardoz,  Star Wars). But the music’s collagelike construction, whereby snatches of wah-wah guitar, space-age lounge-core, breathy saxophone, and electronically treated vocals are integrated with the film’s heightened sound effects, means that it’s just as effectively otherworldly as the images it accompanies, and makes it a major contribution to the woozy, hallucinatory feel of the film as a whole.

Fantastic Planet premiered in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1973, a rare honor for an animated feature. It missed out on the official awards but saw its singularity recognized with a special prize, and went on to win the International Jury Prize at the Trieste International Science Fiction Film Festival. A substantial critical and financial success when it opened commercially, it emboldened Laloux to open his own animation studio in Angers, France, though much of the studio’s initial output unavoidably consisted of rent-paying advertising work. Two more features emerged in the eighties, Time Masters (1982) and Gandahar (1988), made in collaboration with Hungarian and North Korean companies. Although much less well known than Fantastic Planet, they have a great deal in common with the earlier film: their allegorical themes of conquest and enslavement (respectively, by brain-sucking hornets and metal beings controlled by a single consciousness), their wildly imaginative incidental detail, and the fact that each film has a highly distinctive individual look devised by conceptual artists of equivalent stature to Topor: Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Philippe Caza. Sadly, both films were also visibly hamstrung by limited budgets (Laloux was trying to produce big-screen work with small-screen resources) and neither had much commercial impact. Laloux spent his final years teaching, and also championing the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli (at that time much less renowned internationally than they later became), before dying of a heart attack in 2004 at the age of seventy-four. He left us with three features and six shorts, but had he made only Fantastic Planet, his position in animated, French, and world cinema history would still be absolutely secure.

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