Directed and produced by Frédéric Back
I have something a bit different this time. The Man Who Planted Trees is an animated Canadian film based a French book written by Jean Giono (with, in this case, an English translation by Jean Roberts). It is a mere thirty minutes long, a fable meant for adults, undoubtedly, but fit for any age.
It tells the story of a young man who starts a walking tour through Provence. Eventually, he finds himself in a desolate district, where little grows and no one lives. A few ruined villages are the sole testimony to the harsh and crabbed existence people lived there, before eventually giving up even that and leaving. The man, narrating the story, meets a shepherd named Elzéard Bouffier. Living alone, Bouffier wanders the valleys planting acorns. He is patiently re-foresting the land, with oaks on the plateau and birches in the valleys. In three years, he has planted 100,000 seeds, of which he expects a tenth to grow and survive. What follows is a remarkable tale of the power of a single individual to change his world.
This little movie is nearly flawless; I say ‘nearly’ only because nothing is perfect, but I can’t actually find anything wrong with The Man Who Planted Trees.
One of the tale’s strengths is its realism. Almost everyone who read the book or saw the film initially thought it was based on true events, and that Bouffier was real. This is reinforced by the style of the writing. The lines spoken (by Christopher Plummer) sound like merely those of a man telling what has happened to him. From first to last, the lines are simple and ordinary; like a complex drawing that uses nothing but unadorned strokes. The story is set not in a fantasy land, but in France, beginning in 1913. Events occur that lend realism. There is mention of a government plan to cut down trees Bouffier planted, to provide fuel during World War Two, but the scheme is not financially feasible, and is shut down. This digression doesn’t add to the narrative, but to its authenticity.
A simple, exquisite story is matched by superb animation. It has often been compared to Impressionism. The images reminded me of water-colours, but I think, upon close inspection, they resemble more those made by crayons. Pictures blend one into another, as the story flows from one scene to the next. The colours are finely judged, and create the atmosphere as much as do the words. More than once, an image is used as a comparison or a contrast; for instance, the narrator speaks of how, while he was at war, young birch trees were growing, and we see the trees shoot up like explosions. Instead of death, these bursts bring life.
The Man Who Planted Trees is a fable about making a difference. It is not preachy or demanding; it is as patient as Elzéard Bouffier, as gentle as the land he creates. It is all the more powerful because it is realistic. There is no climax, for the whole story is, in a manner, anti-climactic. If there is excitement, it is in the thrill of seeing a world bettered by human endeavour.
This film is movie-making, and story-telling, at its best.