Cannes 2016: La Tortue Rouge [The Red Turtle]

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Studio Ghibli and director Michael Dudok de Wit combine to create this sometimes affecting but mostly tedious picture. The film is entirely without dialogue – it fudges with some grunts and yelps – but the story in itself is not strong enough to carry a wordless picture. The score must overcompensate for the lack of dialogue, undermining the agreeable simplicity of the animation. Themes of seclusion, love and family are time-worn, and there is little new or imaginative here to provoke more than a cursory interest. The illustration is quietly striking, but to the extent that the various terrains take on greater characterisation than any of the island’s inhabitants.

A man is washed up on an unpopulated island. He repeatedly attempts to escape on a raft; each time it is broken up by an unknown force. The third time the audience sees it: the red turtle. The great beast comes ashore after its latest act of destruction. A short conflict ensues. On its back, the turtle bequeaths a woman to the man. Emerging out of the shell, she bears a son. The family begins to live with and against the elements. As the boy grows older, the trio view catastrophe, a new beginning and the possibility of escape.

The film is subtle and the key ideas – love, protection, survival – are presented in the abstract. The man is a cross between Robinson Crusoe and Jesus Christ; the turtle embodies forgiveness and fertility. Some minion-like crabs provide comic relief, but this feels tacked on to provide snippets of vague amusement among the dreariness. The human inhabitants are expressionless. Perhaps this is deliberate: the film focuses on nature and our relationship with the land and sea. In hope, the son ultimately swims away, leaving the island behind. Breaststroke is the preferred technique. A panorama remains, a barren coast and demolished forest. There are some implicit references to environmental degradation, but the film is not able to justify our interest, presenting visual non sequiturs as if they were profound, sounds as if they were heart-rending. Such a story – condensed to its essence – has much to say about human nature and the passage of time. It is a shame this film barely attempts to articulate it.

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Published by

Joseph Owen

PhD, Carl Schmitt, Modernism and Sovereignty at University of Southampton

One thought on “Cannes 2016: La Tortue Rouge [The Red Turtle]”

  1. It’s a gorgeously animated adventure without dialogue to support it, and it’s incredibly artful, sincere work that rewards patience with an achingly human story of life and death as it tours the vast recesses of the mind.

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