The Man Who Planted Trees (L’Homme qui Plantait des Arbres)
(Check out my previous Frederic Back film review here: Crac!)
Frederic Back’s eighth, and penultimate, short film was his longest to date at 30 minutes in length (nearly tripling his longest previous short film). The production took a little over five years to complete alongside his other duties at Radio-Canada and comprises over 20,000 separate drawings, with 3,000 in-between frames completed by Back’s assistant Lina Gagnon. The process improves upon earlier Back productions by using notable early techniques like Prismacolor colour pencils on frosted cels, but adds new pastel artwork for the backgrounds with fixative chemicals to stay the artworks.
Aesthetically, the film moves through multiple styles and movements in the history of art throughout its runtime from harsher Nietzschian landscapes and abysses animated ala Goya to pastoral landscapes permeated by an intense undercurrent of fear and malaise ala Bruegel. As we come to land of the man who planted trees, we find them animated more impressionistically and thereby conventionally beautifully to the modern art-goers sensibility. During this period, pastels predominate in the fields and forests of one man’s making. Finally, the wiry old man becomes less of a real figure and slowly ascends within his domain to something closer to a hermit-prophet of nature whose image becomes more serene and less distinct from his surroundings until the final close-up shot of his wizened old facade animated like a Da Vinci portrait with soft lines and intense detail.
Frederic Back was an avid environmentalist and ecologist whose work often betrayed his love for nature and of a life lived close to it. And for years, he had worked in his free time to plant trees of his own accord: more than 30,000 single-handedly at that. As a member of the Society to Overcome Pollution, he did all he could to leave his world a little better off than when he came into it. So when he came across French author Jean Giono’s 1953 allegorical tale L’Homme Qui Plantait des Arbres, the story of a man who leaves the world behind after tragedy befalls him and comes to a barrent land wherein he spends his life cultivating a forest, Back was absolutely in love. He wanted to immediately animate the story and managed to gain the rights to do so through Radio-Canada. The resultant effect was his most popular and enduring work of his career. A work that competed for and won awards in dozens of film festivals from 1987 till 1993 (including an Oscar, an Emmy, and most prestigious of all, an award at Cannes), that inspired a reprinting of Giono’s classic complete with Back illustrations, and more importantly one that inspired others to plant over one million verifiable trees throughout the world.
The story is of a young man in 1913 who is traveling across the French countryside, specifically through a barren wasteland in Provencal. The bleak landscape is populated by little more than serpents and wild lavender. Ancient villages dot the landscape, all in disrepair and total abandon with old receptacles where once water flowed from beneath ground in vast reservoirs. Now, the traveler moves from village to village and tries to prime these pumps, but finds all water absent. He runs low on his rations and begins to become dehydrated and starved, on the brink of life and death. That is, until he sees a figure above a hill. The man approaches and finds an aged shepherd with his small flock and dog.
The old man gives him some water and leads him back home after fulfilling his duties in the fields. There they sup together and the man is led to believe he will be able to spend the night before moving along the next day toward the populated villages two days aft. He watches the old man sort through a bag of hundreds of acorns, mixing them into two piles for the good acorns and the bad acorns. The old man then puts the good acorns into piles of ten and discerns the smallest or least robust amongst each pile until he has 100 perfect acorns. The young man reflects on his future trip to the cities surrounding this pleasant grotto. Those cities have people who struggle for sustenance and live lives of quiet desperation, which often reach the breaking point and erupt into violence, fear, anxiety, hatred, envy, madness, suicide, and murder. Compared to those places, where he is now is much preferred.
The next day, the young man decides to stay on for a little longer before making his trip back to civilization and its discontents. He watches the old man as he leaves in the morning to place his sheep in a dell for grazing and leaves them behind for his dog to watch while he himself climbs a nearby hill and proceeds to dig holes with his iron staff. In these holes, he plants a single acorn each. Later, the young man will ask the older man many questions about himself and learn that he is 55 years old and is called Elzear Bouffier. He lost his son and then his wife three years previously and decided to leave the world to reflect in his solitude. He found this barren patch of land and knows not who owns it, whether it is parish or common land, or whatever. But he decided to begin planting trees there. Of the 100,000 trees he has planted in those three years, only 20,000 grew and half of those were dealt the hand of providence, were killed by rodents or blight. that leaves him with a grove of 10,000 trees, but he hopes to last another 30 years so that this grove of 11 by 3 kilometers will one day become a mere drop in that veritable ocean of green.
Through two world wars, the young man continues to visit the older man on an almost yearly basis. The forest grows, springs and little rivers appear in the landscape which give birth to willows, reeds, flowers, and gardens. Wildlife returns and over the years, this place, once a wasteland, becomes a thriving world of beauty and natural peace and serenity. The inhabitants of the surrounding region become engrossed in this landscape and part of it over time. They become happier and more peaceful and less resource dependent on the big cities and on hard labor to earn their livings. The place enchants even the parliament who decide to make it a protected land, and eventually the old man dies. And in the process, the young man becomes an old man, almost the same age as when he first met Elzear in these hills. And he realizes that ‘a man’s destiny can be truly wonderful.’ But more importantly, that Elzear, one man, was able to ‘complete this task worthy of God’ and to craft a paradise for which over 10,000 people rely upon for their happiness and peace of mind.
The film was simultaneously released in English and French with two different narrators, both classically-trained highly revered Canadian actors: Philippe Noiret and Christopher Plummer. And it probably thereby had the widest commercial run of any of Back’s films in his career. The work is a beloved classic of Quebec, Canadian, and North American animation that is generally considered to be one of the finest animated works ever created, and in my books, one of the finest short films ever made in any medium whether animation or live-action. I’ve managed to leave much out of the plot of this film, and very many details in the hope that upon reading this you will go out and seek the film yourself: either on the Frederic Back complete short films DVD release through his website or online at some streaming site. You will not be disappointed, and more importantly, you may come away feeling happier, more alive in this moment, and enriched in the prospect that though small and of little weight in the calculus of world actions, you can make a difference for the better in this life. With one step at a time.