Invisible Essence: The Little Prince
Written and directed by: Charles Officer
Classification: N/A; 90 minutes
It starts with a hat. Or, depending on your ability to use your imagination, a boa constrictor who has just consumed an entire elephant. The indelible first passage of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella, The Little Prince, begins with the book’s aviator narrator recounting the time when, as a child, he drew a satiated boa constrictor, which all the grownups around him insisted was a hat. From that moment, readers are transported to a place where the ability to see beyond the expected is the most important thing.
To quote an isolated, all-knowing fox, who the little prince eventually tames on his intergalactic existential adventure: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
While the book was first published in 1943, it became one of France’s most beloved literary classics only after Saint-Exupéry, an aviator and veteran of the French Army Air Force, was presumed dead in a mysterious plane crash off the Mediterranean coast the following year. Today, The Little Prince endures as a primer on how one can find meaning in their life, as well as a great book to read to children, which has been translated into over 300 languages.
Yet its incredible origin story is still one you might not be familiar with. With Invisible Essence: The Little Prince, Canadian documentary filmmaker Charles Officer investigates how it all came to be. He’s made a fitting tribute to The Little Prince’s titular protagonist, who is defined by his ability to never let go of a question.
This seasoned filmmaker (whose previous works include Unarmed Verses and The Skin We’re In) explores how a depressed, maudlin French aviator, coping with a bad marriage and PTSD, managed to write one of the most hopeful children’s classics of our era, thoroughly covering the who, what, where, when and how.
Perhaps purposefully, the why is left more ambiguous. Like the little prince, who travels from planet to planet to understand the secret pains and pleasures of the universe, Officer seeks answers everywhere he goes, from Saint-Exupéry’s home in Northport, Long Island, N.Y., where he first wrote the book, to a strip of North Africa where the aviator was once stationed. Officer even goes so far as to his cast his own little prince, a blind boy undergoing eye surgery in north Toronto, who’s learning how to read The Little Prince in braille for the first time, evoking the passage: “But the eyes are blind. One must look with the heart.”
Featured throughout the documentary are bold-faced names such as Instagram poet Rupi Kaur, filmmaker Mark Osborne (whose 2015 stop-motion animated adaptation of The Little Prince was a box-office hit), and The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. Their appearances help unpack larger themes and symbolism in the text.
The parts of the movie where a series of talking heads explain the plot of the book chapter by chapter can make one feel like they are back in Grade 9 English class. Luckily, there are also stories recounted by Saint-Exupéry’s distant relatives about the writer’s potential inspirations and struggles, which led to some of the text’s most iconic characters and passages.
One is left wanting to know more about the author’s wife, Consuelo, as their complicated relationship (which involved many affairs and a toxic “I can’t write without you, but I can’t live with you” dynamic) was thought to be the chief inspiration for a key figure in the book, the defenceless and petulant rose. While certain characters emerge, there isn’t enough time in Officer’s economical documentary to focus on anything except the broader facts. This unfortunately shortchanges Thomas De Koninck, a retired Quebec philosophy professor thought to be the original inspiration for The Little Prince after Saint-Exupéry struck up a friendship with his father when De Koninck was a young boy.
There’s a compelling mystery at the core of Invisible Essence: The Little Prince. But more than anything, it will inspire you to pick up that dog-eared copy of the novella you’ve had since childhood. Life can be long, lonely and hard. It’s time to take refuge in the stars and sunsets of our lives, including the fine company of a book that understands you.
Invisible Essence: The Little Prince opens March 8 in Toronto.
Special to The Globe and Mail