There can be no denying the fact that Michael Dudok de Wit‘s La tortue rouge [The Red Turtle] is a gorgeous work of art. From the textured background paintings of rock, sand, and stars to the enchanting score by Laurent Perez Del Mar to the carefully measured fable of one man seeing life where only death once resided, the film isn’t something you can quickly forget. But I still can’t quite ignore this lagging notion that the story is too much. The way in which we’re shown fantasy and dream so purposefully before the whole reveals itself to be one in metaphor if not reality asks more questions than provides answers. How it progresses is sweetly resonate in its message, though, and made more sorrowful by its impossibility.
A man (Emmanuel Garijo) is washed ashore on an island, shipwrecked with no means to be saved. He finds fruit and fresh water to survive, but loneliness plays with his mind until existence blurs the line between his waking state and that of daydreams flying through the air. The knowledge that survival can only arrive under his own volition sparks a plan to set sail on a raft. There are enough bamboo trees to construct a hundred rafts, so he commences his first only to watch it get destroyed by an unknown creature in the ocean below. It’s his third attempt that finally puts him face to face with his jailer: a giant red turtle, seemingly benevolent although fiercely adamant about his needing to stay. So he must.
Frustration gets the best of him, though. Enough that seeing this turtle ashore has him flipping it upside-down, preventing it from wrecking another of his rafts. He shows us that he’ll do anything to escape this solitude, even harm another living creature despite not being able to know the reasons for its actions. Thankfully this state of mind lasts but a day, his guilt overcoming the anger that had consumed him earlier. But is it too late? Is the turtle still alive enough to go back into the water? Is the man healthy enough to help it or at least sane enough to not believe the sea creature has changed into a beautiful woman (Barbara Beretta)? Suddenly his prayers are answered as companionship is found and love buds.
A son follows and then a life fulfilled. Is it real? Imagined? Does it matter? Of course not. Our beliefs are all that are necessary to understand truth. Reality is in the eye of the beholder and for this man reality has seen nightmare transform into sanctuary. This island is no longer an unforgiving locale meant to imprison him and therefore be his demise. It’s now his entire world, his home. Perhaps that turtle destroyed his raft so many times to keep him safe. Perhaps a few miles more and he would have died, drowning in the water he would never be able to defeat. Life is thus built from the inside out, civilization and material goods superfluous details surrounding a core of happiness always born without them.
So after the first half provides this man’s relinquishment of everything he once knew, the second depicts his learning of what truly matters. Family, love, and fatherhood—the island gives him all these things when his former life never could. Dudok de Wit and co-screenwriter Pascale Ferran have placed this man into a situation rife with opportunity. Rather than devote his remaining years to futile dreams born from the hate of his circumstances, he’s able to turn it around and acknowledge the good those circumstances possess instead. He has all the food he needs and all the sunlight to stay strong. Jobs, money, government, and celebrity are rendered obsolete, distant vestiges of a life of excess that has become the norm. Distractions are officially erased.
The Red Turtle gives us a look at what matters most through the love of kinship and the self-sacrifice of family. It shows how we can become one with our environment and nature rather than constantly seeking to destroy it for our own selfish gains. The crabs, turtles, and fish become integral pieces of an ecosystem rather than inferior life we can do with as we wish. They each have the same right to life as us; their compassion and empathy proves real instead of mere projections of “humanity” onto them. When disaster strikes, nature comes to the rescue (as perhaps it always did). This man was alive when he hit shore, after all. The water may have ripped his vessel apart, but it spared his life.
Where things fall apart, however, is the end’s revelation of something we know to be true. The opening three-quarters are slow and deliberate, but never overlong or boring. We’re watching a steady evolution of man as he strips away external excess as well as the birth of salvation from an unlikely source via impossible means. It’s an equally heart-warming and heart-wrenching experience despite its authenticity forever remaining in question. And while everything that occurs does culminate into a fitting final sequence, what I saw did less for me as far as providing an over-arching meaning than it did ensure that half of what I saw never happened. This is an okay result if the film acknowledges that its finale subverts its reality. I don’t think this one does.
From here on I will speak in spoilers, so don’t continue reading if you haven’t yet watched the film for yourself. (Unless of course you don’t care about such things.)
I loved the idea that the woman turns back into a turtle upon the man’s death. It’s a poignant transference of point-of-view with the man’s reality once more becoming our own. But what then is made of the boy? How was a son possible if we’re to believe this man enjoyed his life because he was able to see this turtle as his equal, his companion? I feel as though he must also transform into a turtle at the end for the message to make complete sense. Make this a tale of two sea turtles visually transformed into humans for our benefit and ours alone. Or if that’s too much, have his death rewind time to a younger age so that everything is revealed to be a dream.
There’s beauty in the film’s dialogue-free simplicity and the final reveal as shown hurts it with unanswerable complexity. Maybe this reading is on me because I cannot let metaphor stand without going back and nitpicking what that metaphor provided me, but it’s so hard not to considering the ramifications of what we’re made to believe. Maybe my head can’t wrap around the fact that things were more abstract and surreal than initially anticipated because it’s all depicted in such grounded realism. Add dream sequences obviously and intentionally different than “reality” and things are confused even further. Luckily the animation is immaculate and the message easily decipherable—despite being convoluted in its execution—because the result still proves magical in its emotive power. No reservations can deny it that.
[1-3] @ 2016 Studio Ghibli- Wild Bunch- Why Not Productions- Arte France Cinéma- CN4, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics