Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle, where a Crusoe-like castaway’s exposed to the elements, seems to strip film’s elements down to mere images and sounds (there’s no dialogue). Animated in the crisp clear-line style popularized by Hergé’s Tintin books, it’s less an adventure than a marvellous, enigmatic eco-fable. One man, confronted by the wilderness’s indifference and then its hostility, comes to live, make do, and even find some small measure of happiness on a remote island.
In the beginning, there’s only wind and water; then we behold a man, overwhelmed by surging blue-grey waves, his vessel smashed. Washed ashore—on not so much a tropical isle as a sand- and bamboo-ringed outcrop surrounded by ocean as far as the eye can see—he builds a raft to sail away on. But it’s rammed and shattered by a mysterious creature . . . when, in the red glow of sunset, the man takes his revenge, his struggle is transformed.
The landscape’s moods shift from azure seas under impassive blue skies to stormy greys; in his first days, this stranded survivor slips from wary to resolute to despondent to exhausted. In long shot or close-up, we observe this solitary fellow surrounded by nature’s vastness or minutiae: crabs, ants, a millipede. (In one throat-tightening sequence, he falls into a chasm and must swim out, underwater, through a gaspingly narrow passage.)
This masterwork couples de Wit’s starkly poetic, existentialist storytelling (as in his Oscar-winning short Father and Daughter) with a lullaby-like, Studio Ghibli sensibility: dream-interludes and a critical moment of magic-realism. (The Japanese studio, co-producers, contacted de Wit in 2006 to suggest he work on his first feature.) A not-so-simple metaphor-meets-myth of a saga, it’s washed along in a stream of scintillating shots. An inky swirl of clouds looks like a painting. At night-time, the beach, under the stars, reflects the texture and look of charcoal (rubbed charcoal was the basis of some cels), its black-and-white-ness returning us to a cinema before colour. And so, with The Red Turtle, where a man’s solitude is relieved by a moment of wonder, it’s fantastically difficult to decide which is more amazing—nature’s power or humanity’s art.
The Red Turtle
Directed by Michaël Dudok de Wit
Metro Cinema at the Garneau