The Red Turtle – first look

Studio Ghibli’s first international coproduction is a ravishing castaway fable that combines beauty, mystery, drama and heartbreak – with not a word spoken. It’s a triumph for the animator Michael Dudok de Wit.

Isabel Stevens
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The Red Turtle (La Tortue rouge, 2016)

As the lights dimmed a hand-drawn Totoro flashed up on screen. The friendly furry beast adorns Studio Ghibli’s familiar logo. Normally it has a sky-blue wash behind it. But in honour of Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle, the studio’s first non-Japanese production, here it was bathed in red.

“If one day Studio Ghibli decides to produce an animator from outside the studio, it will be him,” was Miyazaki’s pronouncement after watching Dudok de Wit’s Oscar-winning animated short Father and Daughter. The eight-minute film has a lot of Ghibli-isms: it’s about loss; it tackles its melancholy subject with deceptively simple drawings; above all, it pays close attention to nature. Miyazaki, the lover of clouds, no doubt saw the many different and luminous ways Dudok de Wit sketched the sky using just sepia tones and recognised a kindred spirit.

Sixteen years after Father and Daughter, Studio Ghibli and Dudok de Wit’s collaboration has come into being. Dudok de Wit initially turned down the offer to make a feature, believing it to be too complicated, until he heard who was producing it. And even then he thought it was a cruel joke. The Red Turtle was made in France, with Ghibli co-founder Takahata Isao acting as artistic producer, and a script co-written by French director Pascale Ferran.

Cinephile heresy it may have been, but while I was watching The Red Turtle I wanted to whip my phone out and take away some of the images that had been so painstakingly drawn and painted by Dudok de Wit, and breathed into digital motion by a legion of French animators. (I resisted.)

It begins in the middle of a storm. Grey waves and raindrops engulf the screen. In the corner, a tiny head surfaces and then sinks. The nameless man is washed up on a beach with bits of his broken boat. A crab crawls up his leg. When he goes to explore, the view pulls right back so all we see is a remote island while his cries ring out. His only company is a cast of crabs (such an apt collective noun!). Several times he tries to escape with a makeshift bamboo raft, but each time a mysterious force in the water breaks up his boat. Eventually he discovers his secretive aggressor: the titular red turtle.

The Red Turtle (2016)

I’ll leave it there with the plot, because you don’t really want to know much more about a mythical fantasy like this one before you see it. The film is 80 minutes long and is completely wordless.

It has dream sequences and weighty allegories about life that seem to have put the odd Cannes viewer off – but don’t worry, they’re not too neat!

Pictures are the film’s currency and they are, without exaggeration, sublime. There aren’t really too many facial close-ups – actually, about as many of the man as there are of spiders and caterpillars, crabs and leaves. The motif from Romantic painting of a lone person subsumed by a nature is a recurring one: what changes is the island. The attention to detail shown to the sky (its magic-hour glow tinging the whole island), water (grey and angry one moment, an azure palimpsest the next), even the sand (at times you can see the grains in what looks like a smudge of charcoal) is quite extraordinary. The film is a masterclass in chiaroscuro: shadows are just as intricately sketched as the life forms that cause them. Even from a distance, a bottle washed up on the beach has a lighter shadow than a human’s.

A lot of digital animation, with its blocks of colour, can feel flat. But the depth and texture on show here – conjured from a surge of pencil marks and watercolour washes – is remarkable. The film is a must for the big screen. “I am a big softie. I’m a Romantic. I like to cry,” said Michael Dudok de Wit in an interview last year. You have been warned: pack tissues.

 

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