Monday, February 16, 2009

Animation: The Man Who Planted Trees (1987, Frédéric Back)

The Man Who Planted Trees (1987)
Canada, 30 min
Directed by: Frédéric Back
Written by: Jean Giono (story), Jean Roberts (translator)
Starring: Philippe Noiret (voice) (French-language version) ; Christopher Plummer (voice) (English-language version)

Frédéric Back's The Man Who Planted Trees (1987) is the one short film that has been fervently recommended to me above all others, and I'm surprised that it took me so very long to get around to it {fortunately, my stubbornness proved beneficial, since I was able to hold out for a high-quality copy}. My only previous experience with Back was his first Oscar-nominated effort All Nothing (1980) in May 2007, and I enjoyed its artistry, even if the basis in Creationism kept me distanced from its central themes. This effort, arguably Back's most celebrated, tells the story of Elezeard Bouffier, an old shepherd who singlehandedly created a forest through decades of planting seeds. Though I initially assumed that Bouffier was a real-life figure, he was, in fact, a fictional creation of author Jean Giono, who apparently perpetuated the misconception. Either way, this shepherd's story is powerful and inspirational, Back's animation giving life to Giono's uplifting tale.

When I recall Frédéric Back's work, the first contemporary animator who comes to mind is Aleksandr Petrov, whose paint-on-glass animation allows similar dream-like visuals that morph from one image to another like a shifting desert landscape. The Man Who Planted Trees doesn't resemble a moving oil painting, as does Petrov's work, but instead bears a slightly more minimalistic pastel-sketching style. Even so, the attention-to-detail is simply staggering. For the film's opening half, the colour palette is largely sepia-toned, emphasising the sheer barrenness of the desert, with bare rocks and coarse weeds lashed by a dry, bitter wind. As Bouffier plants his trees, Back gradually introduces colour into his work, symbolising the physical and spiritual rebirth of the region. My single slight criticism with the film is that the narration should probably have been used more sparingly. As warm as I found Christopher Plummer's voice, I think that some scenes would have proved more powerful had the viewer been left to his own accord, to absorb for himself the breathtaking beauty of Back's animation.

The Man Who Planted Trees serves, I think, as a fine counterpoint to Back's previous short film, All Nothing. In the latter, a dissatisfied Mankind rapes and pillages the life that his Creator has placed upon the planet. In this film, Mankind gives back to nature; rather than destroying life, Bouffier creates it himself, even as two World Wars rage overhead. On at least two occasions, the narrator {Christopher Plummer in the English-language version, Philippe Noiret in the French} remarks that what Bouffier accomplished makes him something akin to God. Indeed, the government officials who arrive to observe his forest can think of no other explanation for the miraculous rebirth, declaring it an astonishing natural phenomenon. Nobody can believe that all this joy could have been created by the hand of a single man. I interpreted this as a touchingly humanist statement. After all, if an old shepherd like Elezeard Bouffier can give rise to such life, why, indeed, do we need a God at all?


  1. Thanks Andrew for recommending this film. It was beautiful. Easily the best short you have reviewed so far. A bit tough to track down since apparently the copyright owners have been removing it everywhere they can, but it was worth it.

  2. Yep, it's a piece of art, for sure. I'm interested in checking out some more of Back's work - 'Crac' and 'The Mighty River' will have to be next.

    By the way, have you seen anything from Aleksandr Petrov (The Old Man and the Sea, Cow, My Love) or Yuriy Norshteyn (Tale of Tales, Hedgehog in the Fog, Heron and Crane)? They're probably the two best animators in the business. Actually, I might write a spotlight on both of them if I find the time...

  3. No I haven't yet. I will take a look at them when I have a chance. Thanks for the recommendations. I know I have said it before, but keep up the good work.

  4. I watched the Petrov shorts, they were wonderful. I love the way Petrov would blend one scene into another in My Love. Can't wait to watch the other guys films.

  5. Can you give me a copy of the beta top 250 shorts list? I go back and forth between my apartment and my house in the East Bay for the weekend so I don't like to start a top 1000 film the day before I am going leave. Thus, these shorts are perfect fillers. That's why I have been watching all the ones you are writing about. Thanks Andrew.

  6. Hi Michael,
    I just e-mailed you the TSPDT top 250 short films as a Word document. Let me know if it doesn't work.

  7. It worked just fine, thanks Andrew.

  8. This is certainly one the best!
    No words for the beauty of the drawings.
    Simply a genius.
    I invite you to check out my blog, you gonna like it.

  9. Very nice, blog - a useful resource!
    But it stops at 100 films. Is there an extension blog?


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