With the auteur theory currently out of vogue, it's always interesting to remind ourselves of its validity by taking a look at the clearly evident stylistic consistencies of the work of particular directors. Take Sam Peckinpah as an example. He collaborated with a number of cinematographers and editors over the years and yet the look and editing style of his films remains instantly recognisable, whoever was behind the camera or sitting at the Steenbeck. The same goes for French animator René Laloux, who despite working with a number of illustrators and animation studios seems to have put a very distinctive stamp on just about every film he made. Fantastic Planet [La Planète sauvage] (1973) remains probably his most internationally well known work. Gandahar, released in 1988, was to be his last.
Like Fantastic Planet and the later Les Maîtres du temps (both of which are also available from Eureka! under the Masters of Cinema banner), Gandahar takes place on a planet whose similarities to our own are often abstracted through the imagery of dreams. The citizens of this world lead a peaceful, utopian existence that is suddenly disrupted by an invasion of marching, black-suited automatons who lay waste to entire communities by turning their inhabitants to stone and carting away the bodies. The ruling Council of Women agree to send Sylvian Lanvere, the son of the Queen Ambisextra, on a mission to discover the nature of the mysterious invaders and if possible destroy them. But in spite of his confident bravado, things don't go quite to plan. His ship crash lands and he is rescued by a mutated tribe who describe themselves as 'The Deformed', then is frozen and captured by the invading army. However, he quickly recovers from his petrified state and teams up with female fellow prisoner Airelle in an effort to complete his quest.
Right from the opening frames we're in typically imaginative Laloux territory, with flying fish caught not with nets or lines but by enticing them onto ships with the music of flutes. It's this sort of detail and texturing that makes Laloux's films so consistently fascinating, enriching every scene and creating a tapestry of shifting surrealistic artwork against which the story plays out. Memorable images abound: the typically oversized and bizarre vegetation; the wing-headed leader of the Council of Women; the first appearance of The Deformed in the shape of a headless warrior whose face adorns his torso; the sea mist with the characteristics of playful animals; the seed that grows rapidly into a spiked plant to release Sylvian and Airelle from the egg-shaped prison; the animal that is nothing more than a wing that transforms when it comes to land; the army of marching automatons; the climactic image of a giant head transported by mirror birds... I could go on.
The imagery is enhanced by the sometimes excellent soundtrack, notably in the well performed voice work and the unsettling blend of electronic humming, stormtrooper marching and mechanical breathing that accompanies the advancing automatons, an audio-visual creation that really is the stuff of childhood nightmares. The icing on the cake is an atmospheric, other-worldly electronic score by Gabriel Yared, whose film music CV makes impressive reading and who not so long ago bagged an Oscar for his score for Cold Mountain.
An early suspicion that the story is designed primarily as a frame on which to hang the imagery is dispelled by its later complexity, the mid-film reveal recalling the temporal shift of Les Maîtres du temps, but occurring early enough here to become central to the narrative rather than a final ironic twist. It's a development cryptically signalled by a peculiarity of speech employed by The Deformed, one that looks initially like a subtitling error but which make perfect sense when later recalled. As is common with adult science fiction, modern issues are woven into the story, including the favourite genre warning of the hidden price to be paid for utopia, from the results of failed genetic engineering to the possible consequences of long-term pacifism, a view that will be unlikely to meet with universal agreement.
Working with illustrator Philippe Caza, Laloux created in Gandahar one of his most artistically satisfying films, the animation by the North Korean Pyongyang studio among the best in the director's feature career. Particularly pleasing is the consistency – there's no trace of the multi-team discrepancies of design and movement that marked Les Maîtres du temps. The result is a most worthy swansong for a distinctive and imaginative artist, and the sort of film that leaves you aching for the projects that René Laloux, in a career spanning twenty-eight years but just three features and five short films, was unable to even get off the ground.
The film was previously released in English-speaking countries as Light Years, a recut version presided over by Miramax big cheese Harvey Weinstein, who apparently (and outrageously) awarded himself a director credit for this particular piece of cinematic barbarism. The Miramax version features a heavily re-edited first half-hour, an extended ending constructed from some of the excised footage, and an introductory quote from Isaac Asimov, who was also hired to 'naturalise' the dialogue, leading many to believe the film was an adaptation of his work (it was actually adapted from Jean-Pierre Andrevon's Metal Men Against Gandahar). The French language track was, of course, re-dubbed by English-speaking actors, including Glenn Close, Bridget Fonda, Jennifer Grey and Christopher Plummer. Thankfully (and, I would like to think, inevitably) the version on Eureka's DVD is the French original.
Correctly framed at 1.33:1, the transfer sits somewhere between those for Fantastic Planet and Les Maîtres du temps, being better than former and not quite up to the latter. Grain is noticeable throughout and there is some flickering in places, but the colours are well rendered, the contrast good and the detail clear.
A rare thing these days, a Dolby 2.0 surround track and one that actually uses the surrounds well, particularly for location atmospherics and music. Separation is distinct throughout and the sound effects and voices are reproduced with pleasing clarity and depth.
La Prisonnière (6:33)
Laloux's penultimate film, in which he shares the director credits with Philippe Caza, on whose comic the film was based. Handsomely designed and with an atmospheric score by Gabriel Yared, it's story is simple and it's message direct. The print is clean but the sound is slightly muffled.
The usual MoC booklet includes a new essay on Laloux and Gandahar by Craig Keller and a 1996 interview with Philippe Caza. Both make for very interesting reading.
Laloux's final feature was something of a lost treasure, a wonderfully designed and animated science fiction tale whose seemingly straightforward narrative satisfyingly elaborates in the second half. Kudos again to Eureka! for releasing the film as it should be seen, not how Mr. Weinstein re-imagined it.