Saturday, June 29, 2013

The King and the Bird (Le Roi et l'oiseau, Paul Grimault, 1980)

Poetry under fire

Once there was an actor-animator named Paul Grimault and a screenwriter-poet named Jacques Prevert who became friends, then collaborators. They first appeared on film together, uncredited, in Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934); Grimault's next role was in Jean Renoir's Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (The Crime of Monsieur Lange, 1936), which Prevert wrote (he would eventually write the screenplay he was most famous for, Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), in 1945). They did an animated short, Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier, 1947, from a Hans Christian Andersen story), the experience of which apparently pleased both artists--Grimault would propose to Prevert that they next adapt Andersen's The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep for the big screen.

The project was meant to be France's first-ever full-length animated feature, on which Prevert and Grimault would spare no effort or expense. They ultimately invested five years on the film, taking considerable time on script and designs before going into the painstaking work of actual animation, under Andre Sarrut's Les Gemeaux (the first animation outfit in France and eventually the most important in Europe). Les Gemeaux ran out of money and couldn't finish the project; it showed the film anyway as La Bergere et Le Ramoneur, an unauthorized version (Grimault and Prevert refused to put their names on it) with some twenty minutes cut out, resulting in a sixty-three minute running time.

That was in 1952. The film would go on to play in the United States under the title The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird; sometimes it would appear on video as Mr. Wonderbird to the Rescue. Grimault would spend the next twenty-seven years working on the film--forming his own outfit, Paul Grimault Films, in 1951; suing for the rights to La Bergere et Le Ramoneur in 1967; working on the picture between advertising assignments and shorts; trying to stitch old film and new footage (about half-and-half of each) into a seamless whole (the addition is deliberately given a '40s animation look). Prevert would go on to write other scripts but would also work on the project off and on, reconstructing what he wrote almost up to his death in 1977.

The picture was finally finished in 1979, under the title Le Roi et L'Oiseau (The King and the Bird), under which it would win that year's celebrated Louis Delluc Prize. On its premiere, Grimault kept a chair empty by his side, for his collaborator of some thirty years. He passed away in 1994.

The film, narrated by a large bird, begins with a satirical sketch of the kingdom of Tachycardia and its king: Charles V + 3 = 8 + 8 = 16. The king, as the bird puts it, "hates everyone, and everyone hates him." He's a parody of every inbred royal who ever lived, all droopy, decadent lips and pronouncedly crossed eyes, in a package no higher than a doorknob. What he lacks in physical stature and beauty he more than makes up for with his castle, an architectural fantasyland of sky-scraping towers and cavernous chambers, with futuristic express elevators connecting nearly one hundred floors, all filled with perilous trapdoors. The king mounts the elevators from his throne, a grandiose chair that glides silently across acres of marbled floor, presumably on magnetic repulsion, or antigravity.

Up in his quarters the king keeps a collection of paintings, one of which is of a pretty shepherdess he gazes at admiringly before retiring. Once asleep, the paintings come to life--the king's portrait (like the real king) loves the shepherdess and proposes to her, who promptly refuses him--she's in love with the portait of a young chimneysweep hanging beside her. The shepherdess runs away with her chimneysweep; the king jumps out of his picture frame (getting rid of the real king along the way) and goes after them.

The remainder of the film is a chase remarkable for the way it evokes paranoia and despair. Policemen in bowler hats swarm narrow alleys and patrol Venetian canals in motorboats; they take to the air like giant bats and step out of the shadows along gloomy spiral staircases. The lovers are hunted relentlessly from the castle's highest rooftops, through its winding streets and waterways, to its deep underbelly, a world of eternal night. Most terrible of all is the king's giant robot, an oversized tin can with earthshaking metal boots and surprisingly delicate clawed hands that can either crush steel and concrete or detach a shepherdess from her chimneysweep.

The film can live on and in fact is dearly loved for its gorgeous visual design, smooth animation (which you see in the bird's flapping wings and the robot's sweeping gestures), and lovely piano-and-string music (by Wojciech Kilar). Its true glory, however, lies in its powers of characterization--almost everyone down to the supporting characters are memorable, from a blind man with a plaintive hurdy-gurdy (the lovers meet him in the castle's underworld) to the crude but amiable bird narrator who helps the lovers whenever they cry out. Even the chimneysweep has his moment: captured and put to work on an assembly line making reproductions of the king's visage (a witty comment on the king's misplaced narcissism), he stages a lovely little French Revolution of his own and throws the line into chaos.

What gives the film its power, however--what gives it bite and depth and lasting impact--is its portrait of the king. Charles V + 3 = 8 + 8 = 16 is a masterpiece of a villain, the issue, I imagine, of a nightmare union between Jose Ferrer and Adolf Hitler. The castle, its police and giant robot, are extensions of the king, and because Prevert and Grimault seem to pour all their resentment against authority into him (including, I suppose, their experience with deceitful film producers and disagreeable money-men), he brims over with vanity, malevolence, and a cruel sense of humor. He opens trap doors under you if you so much as give off a whiff of insolence; he sends bat-winged police or a giant metal monster at you if you defy him; he even taunts you over an omnipresent speaker system, calling you "useless...useless." The lovers, for all their good looks (the shepherdess in particular is a brunette beauty) are a rather wan pair; it's the fact of the king's considerable ill will dogging their every step that makes their situation so poignant. Only the bird has the confidence and determination to oppose the king, because the bird has already suffered much: he's lost his wife (a shooting accident, he says), dodged many a royal bullet, and endured the continuous prosecution of his children. He's not afraid, not anymore.

Prevert and Grimault's story and script are rich in symbolism, which you can read into as deeply or shallowly as you like. The King doesn't just represent tyranny but the abuse of high technology, and of a mass-produced art capable of creating a truth ("the king is all-powerful...and not bad-looking") that, replicated in the millions, is imposed on the rest of the world. The blind hurdy-gurdy man represents a simpler art, one practiced for pleasure and for giving pleasure to others (What of the lions that threaten him though--critics?). The bird represents the ordinary Frenchman, earthy and fearless and ready to breed dozens of chicks to ensure the survival of his line. The kingdom's name, Tachycardia, is taken from a medical condition where the heart beats at an abnormal rate--appropriate, if you consider the danger of being around the king, and possibly displeasing him. The film is an eloquent tribute to the power of the image, if you remember that the king chasing the lovers isn't the real king but a facsimile from an oil painting--one that easily usurps and has no trouble acting out, possibly exceeding, the malice of the original.

Le Roi et L'Oiseau is steeped in cinematic influences, and has influenced many works of animation. When the lovers hide in the castle's vast underworld and meet the pale creatures living there, the scene pays homage to Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). When the king prepares to wed the shepherdess and the robot's chest opens to reveal an electric band playing raucous wedding music, it's a black joke straight out of Jean Renoir's La Regle du Jeu (Rules of the Game, 1939). Grimault's castle rooftops and trapdoors, in turn, inspired the look of Hayao Miyazaki's directorial debut Kariosutoro no shiro (Castle of Cagliostro, 1979) while his robot helped shape Miyazaki's warrior-gardeners in Tenku no shiro Rapyuta (Laputa, Castle in the Sky, 1986), and Brad Bird's The Iron Giant (1999).

You wonder, or can't help wondering, how things might have turned out if the film had appeared in 1952 as originally planned. Would Prevert have given himself a new and possibly greater career as poet-writer of animation fantasy, allied with a filmmaker who--on the evidence at hand--is more visually talented than Prevert's best-known collaborator, Marcel Carne? Would animation have entered--earlier and to much greater effect--a new period of sophistication and art, transcending the label of mere "children's entertainment?" Grimault noted that animation is often made for children, or at most for parents with children; he and Prevert had aimed to do things a little differently. Matters have evolved since 1940, and animation has acquired a harder, more challenging edge. This, of course, can already be seen in Le Roi et L'Oiseau.

Animation historian Gianalberto Bendazzi put it thusly: Grimault's art comes not from his graphic line, as with most popular animation (or anime) artists nowadays, but from his narrative, his storytelling. His visual style takes its cue more from live-action camerawork and mis-en-scene than from color and cel-drawing (an effect Disney animators aspired to only in their most recent films, and only because of advances in the latest 3-D animation software). Bendazzi considers Grimault's poetic realism comparable to Carne, Renoir, and Julien Duvivier; he calls Grimault France's best animator, and Le Roi et L'Oiseau "one of the finest feature films in the history of animation."

(First printed in Menzone Magazine)

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