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France has given the world a number of groundbreaking animated feature films over the decades, most notably Le Roi et l'Oiseau (The King and the Bird, 1948-1980) by Paul Grimault and La Planète Sauvage (Fantastic Planet, 1973) by René Laloux. One that has probably slipped through the cracks over here is a 60-minute feature released in 1984 directed by Jean-François Laguionie, who is perhaps best known for his short film La Traversée de l'Atlantique à la Rame (Rowing across the Atlantic, 1978). I just had the chance to see Gwen et le Livre du Sable (Gwen and the Book of Sand) last night, and for me personally it instantly ranks near the top of the heap.
Gwen is a film of beauty and purity like few I've ever seen. It should be seen by all connoisseurs of good animated cinema. With its poetic tone, enigmatic imagery and narrative evanescence, it's animated filmmaking for adults in the true sense of the term. More than 20 years have passed since its release, but I find that it still works brilliantly. It's clearly an important but underappreciated achievement in the annals of feature-length animated filmmaking.
Like My Dog Tulip, this film stands as a beacon of how a small team of animation craftsmen can create a feature-length film of great beauty through perseverance and dedication. This wonderful film was made by a team of six people over the span of four years, and cost only 6 1/2 million Francs to make (about a million dollars back then I guess - pocket change compared to today's big feature budgets).
The film itself feels to me like a poem more than a typical animated feature. It's image-based as opposed to narrative-driven. But that's not to say it doesn't have a narrative. Despite being so languid and meditative and full of bewilderingly poetic imagery, it has a very clear narrative and the story is in the classic quest format. It also has a very clear story that makes perfect sense when it's explained by Laguionie (as it is in the superb 40-minute interview included on the French DVD I bought - though I fear there are no subs of any kind on the DVD), although while watching the story is not so clear, and it comes across as a somewhat surrealistic and baffling unfurling of events - delightfully so. However, if so desired, it parses. It's not random for the sake of being random.
What we are presented with in the film is a future world decimated by some unknown apocalypse in which the peoples of the world are split into two - people living in the desert who bear a vague resemblance to the desert peoples of north Africa, and urban refugees living in the ruins of their city. Without revealing anything, the film makes some very obvious and profound comments on the nature of our consumer society, without being didactic or even spelling it out. Although there is dialogue, for the most part Laguionie communicates the nature of the situation through images depicting the ravaged world in which these characters are now forced to eke out a living, rather than narration. And even the images leave much to the imagination, and never stoop to pure literalism. Every image is bewildering and destabilizing. The film boasts any number of incredible shots, both still and in motion, that work as beautiful painterly images. Some of the shots have an ingenious trompe-l'oeil quality about them, like an Escher painting, or something out of The Thief and the Cobbler, and the city has a vertiginous and overgrown feeling like the city in Le Roi et l'Oiseau by Grimault, Laguionie's mentor. The image of the characters dashing across the desert on stilts is one of the film's most unforgettable.
The visuals for this world inhabited by the characters is truly astonishing to behold, while yet remaining very familiar and normal in appearances. They're very painterly, both in texture and in content and layout. They remind of Matisse and Rousseau. Although 'surreal' is a term that is often misused, the images feel deliberately surreal - the way a character will be wandering in the desert only to suddenly encounter an area completely covered by bed frames, pillows, mattresses and sheets billowing in the wind. Or a giant tea kettle in the middle of nowhere. The wonderful thing about the surreal imagery is that it works on two levels - it creates a surreal atmosphere that transforms a quest into a visual feast not to be taken literally but rather to be appreciated on a poetic level; and it works as a narrative in which the strange images are in fact explainable props in a science-fiction story that turns out to be a powerful dystopian vision of one possible future for our consumer society.
Laguionie made many interesting comments in the interview that reveal his unique nature as a creator. He noted that during the conceptual development stage, which was handled entirely by himself, he greatly enjoyed the process of testing out different ideas and fleshing out the characters, but that once the character was chosen, the rest of the work - the rote work of drawing the character consistently, over and over again - was much less appealing to him. Regarding the music, he made the interesting comment that he doesn't like it when music describes an action literally - running gets fast music, for example. He prefers the music to describe the state of mind of the characters, and for it to be tied to the emotion of the scene. And of technical note is the fact that Laguionie built a multi-plane camera from scratch for this film in order to achieve the feeling of depth in the desert. What can now be achieved ever so simply on computers was back then a huge labor. We might see the effect today and not realize how much effort was expended to achieve it.
One of the defining traits of the film is that the screen is unified - the characters are drawn not using the typical outlines and flat colors of typical cartoons, but using gouache to give them the texture of a painting, like the background art. I can only imagine how much this must have compounded the labor of animating these characters, as they actually had to animate the gradations of color changing dynamically around the curves of the figures with each new drawing. Laguionie's two more recent films look more like your typical 'dessin anime' adaptation of a 'bande dessinee', whereas this film comes across as 'animation'. The visuals are painterly, like an artistic short, completely at odds with the traditions of feature-length animated filmmaking, which for labor-saving purposes demanded certain techniques - paint on cels, flat colors - in order to be able to achieve the feat of drawing a character anew 12 times per second. I really like this film because it's another great example that shatters the illusion that that's the only way of doing things. It's one of the great achievements in feature-length indie animated filmmaking.