La planète sauvage
France / Czechoslovakia, 1973
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 17 June 2007
Source Eureka! / Masters of Cinema DVD
Features: What is Animation?
As an animated feature, Fantastic Planet’s significance is in how this European film asserts a more artisanal style in opposition to the smoother felicities of the American one. Yet even more important to the film is the way its director, René Laloux, is operating here as a kind of enabler of another artist’s vision, that of the artist and writer Roland Topor. In film circles, Topor has two further claims to fame: as the author of the source novel for Polanski’s The Tenant, and as an actor in Herzog’s version of Nosferatu the latter, Topor’s performance as the crazed fly-eating Renfeld seemed only too appropriate, as an extension of the dark, twisted surrealism of his own artistic world.
x and Topor had worked together before on two animated shorts in the mid-sixties: Les Temps morts (Dead Times) and Les Escargots (The Snails). The latter’s animation aesthetic of “articulated cutouts”, where certain bodies or parts of bodies are animated within an otherwise still image (think of Terry Gilliam’s animations on Monty Python’s Flying Circus to get a sense of the effect), were then parlayed into a full-length feature film in the shape of Fantastic Planet.
For this the two turned to a 1950s French sci-fi novel, Oms en série by Stefan Wul. On the planet Ygam the giant blue-coloured Draags maintain the human-like Oms (a homophone of the French “hommes”, i.e. “men”) as tiny household pets when they’re not trying to exterminate the ones that are running wild in the outdoors, treating them as vermin. The story centres on one Om, Terr (“terre” = “earth”), who as a baby is given to the young Draag Tiwa as a pet, acquires knowledge by listening in to the information bracelet Tiwa uses for learning, and then escapes to join the Oms living in the wild. Terr is then ultimately in the position to help his fellow Oms escape the Draags’ plan for their total extermination—”de-omisation”, they call it.
The allegorical tone is clear here, born of a narrative strategy, going back to Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, of putting Man in the inferior position he usually puts other species in, in order to draw a moral lesson. But in Fantastic Planet the historical/political parallels are even stronger. On its release in 1973, after five years of animation work carried out in Czechoslovakia, some critics saw the film as an allegory of the defeat of the Prague Spring and the Soviet oppression of Eastern Europe. This does seem to be a misreading as, given the film’s detailing of the Draags’ systematically planned extermination of the Oms, including the application of gas, the references are obviously to Nazi Germany, with the general theme of the film being a consideration of the issues of racism, xenophobia, and the fear of the outsider and of difference.
Animation suits the film’s straightforward, even simplistic treatment of its themes and the lack of psychological depth in the characters. And the style of animation Laloux has chosen – based on Topor’s surrealist graphics, with cutouts providing stilted, jerky movements against an often still background – works to impart a suitably otherworldly, spacy, trippy tone to the film. (1960s drug culture, evidenced in the Draags’ meditation rituals and the wild Oms’ sex-and-drug happenings, has definitely fed into the film, giving it a certain period charm, reinforced by the appropriately dated/of-its-time soundtrack score.)
The film’s aesthetic tone, the way it plays off limited movement against static flat backgrounds, is set from the start. A human mother and baby lurch across the screen as a giant blue hand descends from above to play with them, leading to the cruel and casual killing of the mother. The physical threat and the mysterious beauty of this world are both present, with a very mundane explanation to what we have just seen: a group of Draag children are carelessly and unthinkingly playing with some Oms, and thus establishing the film’s dominant theme—how should a dominant species treat a smaller, weaker, more vulnerable one?
This kind of movement within the image that Laloux’s animation offers, where single elements alone (the two human figures; the Draag child’s giant hand) are the only ones in movement, is a consistent and repeated visual trope of the film. It’s also a very effective one, for example in the drug-inflected scenes when the Draags’ state of meditation is represented as figures encased in balls floating against a blank background. Similarly, landscapes are more often than not nothing more than still paintings.
Once Terr escapes from his life as a Draag house pet and joins the wild Oms, Laloux offers us more of the bizarre life forms that populate Planet Ygam, allowing Topor’s visual imagination to run riot. There are even some black comic touches somewhat out of keeping with the spirit of the rest of the film, as if Terry Gilliam’s animation work is being channeled here. A giant plant suddenly anthropomorphises into a laughing face that maliciously catches stray creatures flying by and kills them; or, a newly-hatched creature is licked by what we may assume is its mother—until she promptly eats it. But this black humour is not the true tone of the film, which prefers rather to use its animation style, the slow, jerky, sometimes clumsy movements, the disjunction between those elements in movement and the larger still surroundings, to convey a sense of a fascinating, mysterious and alien world.
Rather surprisingly, the fantastic planet (in the original French, the “savage” planet) of the title is not Planet Ygam itself but a satellite of the planet which the Oms eventually see as a planet for themselves, one for them to escape to, but which they discover is the site for the Draags’ intergalactic mating rituals. Here the film parts considerable company from the book.
In Wul’s original, all the action takes place on the planet itself. The Draags live on artificial continents they have constructed for themselves and the Oms escape to one of the planet’s original, “primitive” continents. The Fantastic/Savage Planet is the planet itself. Rather strangely, the film displaces this identity onto an orbiting satellite/moon that hardly seems to have these “savage” qualities. It perhaps indicates a certain confusion as to where the point of the story rests once the situation of this alien world and the antagonism between the species has been established.
In fact, the latter part of the story—all quite different from the novel—rather speeds by in a confused rush. Years pass, the Oms hide out, acquire a knowledge of advance technology through the Draags’ information bracelet Terr took with him when he escaped, build rockets, and fly to the “Fantastic Planet” where they can threaten the destruction of the Draags’ source for the continued survival of their species. But a film which has been developing an argument for understanding, reconciliation and peace between species (read: races/nations) in the end proposes a solution of absolute segregation—the Oms live on their own artificial satellite named Terr. And at the end of the film we see another Draag child holding in her lap the offspring of another species as her plaything, as if nothing really has changed.
This ending has the feeling of not really being thought through, more a rapid succession of events tagged on to bring the narrative to a conclusion. But ultimately this, like the flat characters and the familiarity of the plot, hardly matters, as the great fascination of Fantastic Planet rests firmly in its compelling graphics and its very particular style of animation.