The Red Turtle
THE RED TURTLE, animation, Violet Crown, 4 chiles
A solitary man, without a lifeboat, is being swept away amidst the chaos of mountainous rolling waves. He washes up on the shore of a desert island and spends his early days and weeks there attempting to build a bamboo raft to take him away. These efforts are thwarted in part by a red turtle. Out of anger and frustration, he punishes the turtle by flipping it upside down and letting it slowly dehydrate in the sun. He soon realizes the cruelty of this act; flush with regret, he helps to revive the beast with water and shelter. One night, the turtle transforms into a woman, and a relationship between the two blossoms. The man pushes his raft out to sea and lets it drift out to the horizon, accepting the fact that the island is his home.
This animated film from Dutch filmmaker Michaël Dudok de Wit, nominated for an Oscar and made in collaboration with Japan’s Studio Ghibli, is scarcely experienced as a film at all. It unfurls like a fable or a dream, showing us the relatively mundane lives that the man and the woman create for themselves on the island — gathering food, raising a child, growing older. If it had been an animated short, this might have felt long — a beautiful, if tedious, exercise. As a feature film, with the time to allow us to settle into its world, it goes by in the blink of an eye.
The man and woman aren’t alone here, as Ghibli’s signature attention to natural detail emerges in the wildlife; skittering crabs and majestic turtles are among the film’s main characters, and the island is further populated by seagulls, polliwogs, and millipedes. Dudok de Wit endows his humans with the European expressiveness of an Adventures of Tintin comic and imbues their movement with weight and life. He rarely uses close-ups; we almost always see the main characters’ bodies in full, oftentimes seeming barely significant against a vast seascape.
Almost all of the action takes place across three environments: blue water, a sandy beach, and a lush bamboo forest, all of which get washed over in a charcoal grey for nighttime scenes and dream sequences. Dudok de Wit plays these environments like three chords in a long ballad, bringing viewers from one place to the next and back again in a patient tempo. From these simple ingredients, the film shows us life as we all live it — how it’s about your environment, your routines, and the people you spend time with — and then it’s done. It’s such an extraordinary moviegoing experience that you barely notice that there isn’t a single line of dialogue. — Robert Ker