I will stay with you: The Red Turtle

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) (2016)

A gorgeous animated film that doesn’t need words to profoundly move us, making it really hard to keep our eyes dry while watching it

The Red Turtle


Di­rect­ed by Michaël Du­dok de Wit. Writ­ten by Michaël Du­dok de Wit and Pas­cale Fer­ran.

There are cer­tain films that need no words to have a pro­found im­pact on us. The Red Tur­tle is one of those films. Made by Dutch an­i­ma­tor Michaël Du­dok de Wit (who took home an Acad­e­my Award for his melan­choly an­i­mat­ed short Fa­ther and Daugh­ter) in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Stu­dio Ghi­b­li of Hayao Miyaza­ki, this gor­geous an­i­mat­ed fea­ture is com­plete­ly de­void of di­a­logue and yet man­ages to con­vey every­thing it wants to say with­out any need of ex­po­si­tion. In essence, it is a movie that speaks di­rect­ly to our feel­ings. Just sur­ren­der to its mag­ic beau­ty and you will find a touch­ing sto­ry about time, love, dreams and what makes us hu­mans.

The Red Tur­tle be­gins with a man caught in a storm at sea and wak­ing up on a de­sert­ed is­land. At first, he ex­plores the isle and tries to find oth­er peo­ple, but soon he re­al­izes he’s alone and iso­lat­ed. Find­ing fresh fruit, potable wa­ter and a for­est of bam­boos there, he sees a wood­en bar­rel float­ing on the wa­ter and de­cides to build a raft out of bam­boos to leave back to where he came from. In a dream, he flies over a bridge in the ocean that will take him away, a clear il­lus­tra­tion of his de­sire to be free from that place. But once he sets out into the sea, his raft is at­tacked and de­stroyed by an un­seen sea crea­ture that forces him back to the is­land.

Frus­trat­ed, the man builds an­oth­er raft, but it is also de­stroyed by the mys­te­ri­ous crea­ture. Af­ter build­ing a third raft, he fi­nal­ly comes face to face with a large red tur­tle, and in a fit of rage, ex­pressed so per­fect­ly by the scene’s use of red and tense mu­sic, he at­tacks the an­i­mal with a bam­boo stick and ends up killing it. But the man, feel­ing ter­ri­bly guilty, is com­plete­ly caught by sur­prise when the turtle’s shell splits in half and the an­i­mal mag­i­cal­ly turns into a red-haired woman. She quick­ly leaves, how­ev­er, but then re­turns and the two be­gin a ro­mance af­ter she throws away her bro­ken shell into the sea and he does the same with his raft.

In any usu­al nar­ra­tive, it would be nor­mal to hear a lot of ex­po­si­tion that would serve to ex­plain with words what is in­vis­i­ble to our eyes. But The Red Tur­tle does the ex­act op­po­site and the mag­ic be­hind the tur­tle is nev­er ex­plained. Was this woman cursed? Is she a su­per­nat­ur­al crea­ture? We nev­er know and it doesn’t mat­ter. Same thing goes for any di­a­logue that could ex­press his guilt and her for­give­ness. Why words if what they do is so mean­ing­ful? When they walk along the beach side by side, their paths on the sand con­verge un­til the two end up float­ing to­geth­er in a lyri­cal hug that ex­press­es so beau­ti­ful­ly their to­geth­er­ness.

An even more mean­ing­ful qui­et mo­ment comes lat­er on when they draw pic­tures in the sand to tell their son about the world and their lives, or when the boy, old­er, swims with green tur­tles as if he is one of them. The 2D tra­di­tion­al an­i­ma­tion is stun­ning, blend­ing hand-drawn and dig­i­tal tech­niques while find­ing a most per­fect bal­ance be­tween the Eu­ro­pean ligne claire car­toon­ing style of Hergé and the art of Japan­ese scroll paint­ings, with more at­ten­tion paid to the char­ac­ters’ sketchy move­ments than their fa­cial ex­pres­sions and of­fer­ing us daz­zling vi­su­als like the dense green bam­boo for­est and the vast­ness of the sea.

Also fan­tas­tic is the film’s sound de­sign, which pulls us into the is­land with the im­mer­sive sounds of the for­est, the sea, the rain, the an­i­mals (in­clud­ing sea li­ons and seag­ulls), the plants and trees wav­ing in the wind. Why words when you can do such an amaz­ing job with what you show and make us hear? And The Red Tur­tle nev­er ceas­es to stun us with its mag­nif­i­cent score by French com­pos­er Lau­rent Perez del Mar – and I wouldn’t be ex­ag­ger­at­ing if I said this is one of the most beau­ti­ful film scores I’ve ever heard in my life. You will see what I’m say­ing when you reach the movie’s won­der­ful and po­et­i­cal­ly sad last scene.

But The Red Tur­tle is also im­pres­sive­ly rich when it comes to its de­tails – like a bot­tle with wa­ter rep­re­sent­ing the boy’s de­sire to leave the is­land; the man’s shad­ow that re­sem­bles the shape of bam­boos; or the woman’s hair whose col­or red is usu­al­ly as­so­ci­at­ed with pas­sion and love. Be­fore the man starts build­ing his sec­ond raft, there is a brief mo­ment of ap­pre­hen­sion when the for­est falls into a com­plete si­lence, as if hold­ing the breath for a sec­ond, and then all sounds sud­den­ly re­turn – and I per­son­al­ly love an­oth­er scene when his son sees a green tur­tle un­der the wa­ter and goes up to the sur­face to take more air be­fore div­ing back in.

It is all this care and love what makes The Red Tur­tle so spe­cial. You may not be al­ways sure what cer­tain el­e­ments are or if they are meant to be in­ter­pret­ed as metaphors for some­thing else, but there isn’t a sec­ond there that we don’t feel like the film knows what it is do­ing. And if you are pa­tient enough and em­brace all the beau­ty it of­fers, it will prob­a­bly be hard for you to keep your eyes dry while watch­ing it.

Au­gust 8, 2017


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