Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle is just sickeningly beautiful. Seriously. It’s like every frame is draped with so much perfection that it becomes impossible to glimpse the working parts underneath. It’s so striking, so mercurial that you really can’t deny the power of the thing. It’s already falling into the same place in my mind as Fantasia, these things which feel impossible to criticise because, as far as the irrational part of my brain is concerned, they’ve always been there.
I’m not sure if the story of The Red Turtle is an already existing tale or if de Wit with his cowriter Pascale Ferran came up with it themselves. It’s a slim plot, but when you’re exploring a near wordless ninety minutes one only needs enough to push events gently forwards. The concept of a man lost at sea, accompanied by this quasi-mystical animal companion is a familiar one. It immediately calls to mind Ang Lee’s 2012 Oscar winner, Life of Pi, which actually covers some similar thematic ground.
The other comparison which immediately sprang to my mind was no doubt a side effect of the time and place I went to school. Reading in year seven English class the first few chapters of Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom. I’m unsure if we actually ever finished it, all I remember is those first few chapters, that and the cover. We were loaned by the school cheap paperbacks (I’m pretty sure they were the Scholastic editions) the cover was a printing of Hosukai’s The Great Wave, it’s one of those images that just stays with you.
It’s visible there in the opening scene, a lone head bobbing among the ferocious squall of a sea storm. The beauty and horror of nature written all over the landscape of the island we spend all this time exploring. There’s something about the way the film presents nature’s stasis, the environment art is kept at all times separate from the character art, it is as if the world we see is one that has been printed in place. The sand on a beach, the bark of a tree, their patterns are all neat and undisturbed and nicely geometrical until there so comes a human to disrupt them. It is, for these times, a film about the delight of environmental ethics, a guide for the ways to interact with our planet.
The story of the film’s conception is that after watching de Wit’s (legit great, check it out) short film Father and Daughter Hayao Miyazaki invited him to pitch whatever he liked. The completed film comes with the Studio Ghibli production card at the head and a number of their names in the credits, Toshio Suzuki the first credited producer. The authorial voice though is still strongly and clearly de Wit’s, his designs have a calm simplicity to them, even the effects that one senses have been augmented with three dimensional graphics seem spare and controlled.
But, in addition to wanting to be about humanity’s stewardship over the environment it also wanna be about how humans relate to each other. Unfortunately that’s not so great, a short while after the dude washes up a woman comes ashore, that goes as you’d expect. It’s not like I hate it, but in aiming to describe a silent universality of human existence the filmmakers take some shortcuts. When you’re talking about nature, fine, when you’re talking about the essentiality of how men and women express themselves and relate to each other, it’s not so fine.
I don’t wanna harp on it too much, cos it really ain’t all so egregious most of the time. The couple have a fairly egalitarian and ideal relationship, but if you’re trying to create a statement about the totality of human experience I’m gonna be thrown slightly off when it starts saying things that are untrue. Like, the way they relate to their son, the ways they deal with his aging, the movie’s so sure about how this goes and, eh, I don’t think so.
There were some kids in my screening, which is always like a toss up when you’re going to an art cinema. Film’s rated PG anyway and so I’m always glad for the perspective if I can get it. They liked it and even the younguns were able to follow it just fine. There’s all sorts of saying about how you have to be a grown proper adult in order to properly get something that could be loosely described as art filmmaking.
Nah mate, The Red Turtle is an unabashed fairytale, never more so when, like the best of them, it decides to branch out into its own self-contained episodes, these which allow the content to swing back and forth in tone, sometimes comic, sometimes horrific. Myths never seem more lifelike then when they manage to pull that off.
It’s a fine film for children, and it’s a fine film for adults.
It’s just a damn fine film.
The Red Turtle is currently screening in UK cinemas.