Salma Hayek premieres the first footage from her ambitious animated film ‘The Prophet’

CANNES — One of the more unexpected events at this year's Cannes Film Festival for me happened on Saturday night. I went to what I thought was going to be a screening, but which turned out instead to be a presentation hosted by Salma Hayek for the work-in-progress version of an animated anthology film based on “The Prophet,” the internationally acclaimed book of poetry by Kahlil Gibran. Ultimately, we ended up seeing less than half of the film, but Hayek's enthusiasm and the finished footage that we did get to see made a strong case for not only how much this film means to her personally, but also what a beautifully crafted experience the end result promises to be.

If you're an animation fan, this is going to be a fascinating collection of voices and techniques from around the world, all in service of this beautiful, profound piece of work that has been punching holes in readers for fifty years now.

After being introduced, Hayek spoke about how she has made many films that have honored her Mexican heritage, but she's spent her entire career looking for the right project to honor her equally-important Lebanese heritage. Finding a film that spoke to her as an Arabic woman was no simple prospect. Consider how hard it is to find a good script for a woman of any background, and then magnify that difficulty exponentially. When she finally made the connection and saw the potential in “The Prophet,” she set out to make what she considers a love letter to that side of who she is.

The book was a favorite of her grandfather's when she was very young, and her grandfather was an important figure in her life. She lost him when she was six, and for years, she didn't think of the book at all. Then at sixteen, she read it cover to cover, and she felt like he was speaking directly to her. She said that she hopes the film will speak to her own daughter, and that it will make a connection between where she came from and what she hopes to leave behind.

The film is a mix of gorgeously rendered 2D conventional animation, experimental techniques, and cutting-edge 3D computer work. The main wrap-around story is directed by Roger Allers, whose “The Lion King” is her favorite animated movie. Allers joined Hayek in front of the crowd to talk about his own experience with “The Prophet,” which he admitted does not immediately suggest a film adaptation.

When he was in college, he met a girl one afternoon, and they had one of those great days where everything clicked and the conversation seemed easy, and they ended up going back to her place. Instead of the punchline you'd expect from that story, what happened was she introduced him to “The Prophet,” and as they read the book together aloud, Allers had a life-changing experience. He suddenly felt connected to the world in a different way, part of something larger, and that feeling has been part of his daily experience ever since. When Hayek reached out to him, he considered it to be the hand of fate, and he signed on immediately, with no clear plan of how to accomplish the adaptation, but with the thrill of knowing how special it could be if they pulled it off.

The first segment that they showed is one of the earliest in the film. In it, we meet Mustafa (voiced by Liam Neeson, who seems to have been created specifically to read words this rich and moving), a poet and a painter who is evidently under some sort of house arrest. The woman who takes care of his house, voiced by Hayek herself, has a daughter named Almitra, who does not speak since the death of her father. Mustafa is obviously fond of the girl, and he's actually playing a game with her in his office when she accidentally knocks over a cup of coffee onto his work and his lap. Her mother is mortified, but Mustafa tells her not to worry. He's not upset, and he seems happy with the way the coffee washes across his painting.

As he speaks, the film drifts into the first segment of actual poetry from the book, which addresses the notion of freedom. It is a beautiful, abstract supplement to the words themselves, featuring striking imagery like human shaped bird cages, filled with birds of every hue, or another image of a whole flock of birds, all tied to a tree, who take wing and bring the tree with them. “Your children are not your children,” Mustafa says. “They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself. They come through you, but not from you.” He speaks of how we belong only to ourselves, and how a parent's job is not to control their children, but to support them and to prepare them for the world. One of the most beautiful lines in that poem is “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth,” and the imagery that erupts from that line is both literal and also a way to visually articulate the infinite. “You may house their bodies,” he says, “but not their souls.”

The relationship between Mustafa and Amarita seems to be one of the driving forces of the movie, and the wrap-around material looks like the finest of the hand-animated Disney films in terms of character, performance, and the richly-imagined environments.

At the first break, Hayek brought in a special guest, Gerard Depardieu. I feel like seeing him address a room full of people in French at an event at the Cannes Film Festival may be the single most French thing I will ever do. Didn't understand a word of it, and there was no translator, but Hayek was positively beaming the entire time. When he was done, she spoke again about how hard it's been to make the film because of its unconventional nature, and how one of the main struggles has been trying to find a way to make all of these radically different styles blend into something that still feels like one complete film. Based on what we saw, I'd say they've accomplished at least that goal.

Joan C. Gratz was introduced next, and it was lovely to finally see this animation legend in person. She said she managed to live her whole life without being exposed to the book, and once she became involved with the film, she very quickly fell in love with it. Her technique involves the use of mixed media, paint and clay on a canvass, and she paints using a single finger, something I find mind-boggling when I see the end result of the work she does. She said it was important to her to use some of the imagery that appeared in various editions of the book over the years, including a very famous image of a hand with an eye in the palm. Her segment deals with work, and the idea that all work is noble, that we make the world better through our efforts, and at least as far as her work is concerned, I would say that is certainly true.

Next up was Bill Plympton, and anyone who knows his work probably thinks of him as a guy with a left-of-center sense of humor and a love for the weird. He came across as incredibly sweet and sincere during this presentation, though, and talked about his animation style, using simple colored pencil on paper, is the way he's created images since he was a child, and he can't imagine doing it another way at this point. His segment deals with the way we occupy a specific place on the food chain, specifically eating and drinking. “Since we must kill to eat and rob the young of its mother's milk to quench your thirst,” Mustafa says, “let it be an act of worship.” I'm not used to seeing something this sweet and even spiritual come from Plympton, but it was a lovely fit for this film. “When you kill a beast, say to him in your heart, 'By the power that slays you, I too am slain, and I too shall be consumed.” Abstract in that way that Plympton loves, with his images rolling by, sometimes repeating, it just washed over me.

The Brizzi Brothers came out after that segment, a pair of Italian filmmakers who worked for Walt Disney feature animation for a while. I would argue they created one of the best of the segments in “Fantasia 2000,” and for this film, they pulled double duty. They created the segment on death, but they also did over 700 storyboards for the film, helping establish a visual palette and a character style for the movie. We got to watch some of their animatics, just as an example of how much they were a part of the design of the film. Even in this raw form, what we saw was lovely and emotional, and they did such a great job of giving Almitra a sense of life in their work that I feel like this is going to be artistically ravishing from end to end, a reminder of just how broad a thing animation actually is.

For example, Joann Sfar came out next. He's a comic book artist and a novelist, but isn't known primarily for animation. He's just someone who Hayek and the producers identified as a voice that would be exciting to have in the mix. “When they came to me, I asked to do the segment on sex, and they told there isn't one. I asked to instead do the section on getting drunk, and they told me there isn't one.” Instead, he took the one about marriage, and for sheer emotional beauty, his was the one that impressed me the most.

Here's the text from “The Prophet”:

“Then Almitra spoke again and said, 'And what of marriage, master?'
And he answered saying:
You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love.
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone.
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
GIve your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together,
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.”

Sfar's visuals imagined a tango that expresses every bit of the message of the piece, a gorgeous dance, the lovers both barefoot. I will confess that I am particularly vulnerable right now any discussion of how marriage should be, and the lessons of that poem are so simple to understand and so hard to actually practice. The idea of marriage as this beautiful ongoing dance between two people hit me really hard, and I found myself quietly crying as I watched. It hit me the same way as it did when I first saw “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and the “Origin Of Love” number. Sometimes, someone gets an idea so perfectly right that I don't just watch… I absorb.

One of the things that is particularly beautiful about that scene is the tango score, and when the lights came up, Hayek discussed Gabriel Yared, who is handling the score. Because he is also Lebanese, Hayek felt he had the right connection to the material, and it certainly seems to be the case in the pieces I saw. There are other contributors, like Damien Rice, who scored the “Children” segment, and Glen Hansard and Lisa Hannigan, who scored the segment on love.

That segment was animated by Tomm Moore, director of the lovely haunting “The Secret Of Kell,” and he mentioned how strong an influence on his work Gustav Klimt is. He also said that they had to stop animating the segment after they started because he felt like they were making a surface level greeting card version of the poem. What they ended up with is less of a narrative piece, and more like this beautiful explosion about tending the earth and the soil and the plants, nurturing and watching the rise and the fall of the cycles of the seasons.

And again, to quote the passage:

“If you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love, and to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy.
To return home at eventide with gratitude,
and then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in you heart and a song of praise on your lips.”

What a beautiful, enormous, overwhelming list, and what a goal to set for yourself to live up to. As with the marriage segment, the open-hearted nature of the work and the bruised and broken center of my own soul combined to wash over me as those final lines were read, leaving me moved and shaking and determined to find love in my life that is that exceptional.

With that, Hayek thanked everyone for coming as a huge round of applause threatened to drown her out, mentioning that the film was going to be finished later this year. After spending that hour listening to her and all of the artists, I can't say for sure that “The Prophet” will work as a whole, but those pieces we saw suggested that this will be a one of a kind animated experience.

I wish I could watch it right now, ten times in a row, but I'll have to wait just like you will to see if they have done this brilliant book the honor it deserves.