How does a 90 minute, wordless film manage to become something so majestic and emotionally wrenching? Michael Dudok de Wit’s animated feature, co-produced by the legendary Studio Ghibli, is a paradoxical mini-masterpiece of unconventional storytelling; pared back to almost nothing it initially feels over-simplified and yet The Red Turtle (2016), co-written by de Wit and Pascale Ferran, is actually brimming with a rich allegorical subtext.
With background and context omitted, we discover a man washed up on a desert island. Survival becomes a dispiriting struggle. After painstakingly fashioning a raft from what he can scrounge on the island, he’s thwarted not far from land by a beast of the sea determined to prevent his return to whatever definition of society he comes from. On multiple occasions he’s forced to swim back, his makeshift raft destroyed, left to start from scratch again.
Soon, the appearance of the turtle of the film’s title takes de Wit’s film into markedly different terrain as the nameless man’s existence is re-routed. From a vantage point of hopelessness imbued with the perils of the unknown, a comfortable middle ground is reached – a place of reverie and semi-normality from which ordinary thoughts and experiences can finally be derived, collected and cherished.
This isolated existence becomes a metaphor for man’s remarkable will to live, for an ability to provoke our deepest instincts for survival into becoming a generating force, able to defy extinction just when it seems most likely. But what are these events truly? Are they real or just the fevered dreams of a man slowly perishing as his body and soul evaporate against the inexorable forces of an indomitably savage land?
Using, as its loudest, most expressive voice a staggering, evocative score by Laurent Perez Del Mar, with its powerful main theme returning again and again in ever-surprising guises, de Wit has produced a film of transcendent power that manages to make us laugh, keep us on the edge of our seat during a couple of genuinely tense moments, before finally ripping out our hearts.
The Red Turtle is a boldly conceived, stunningly executed piece of cinema. Here’s a rare example where grasping for ways to accentuate themes and conclusions with a burdening framework of words may have fatally damaged the overall effect of a film, perhaps entirely blunting its power. Instead, de Wit remains true to a determination to carry his daring premise through to the end where the heart-wrenching last moments swell with poignancy in a haunting statement of inevitability and finality.