More than words

More than words

By: Ed Jackson

Sitting across from Michaël Dudok de Wit is uncannily like the feeling you get when watching his films. Kind-eyed and generous, he has the same disarming ease of manner that makes his animation so benevolently inviting. That said, he’s also reserved in ways that suggest an unshakable seriousness about his art. Warm but austere, complex yet clear – these are the tensions that make The Red Turtle such an enchanting experience.

This kind of subjectivism is perhaps a questionable way to interpret a film, but de Wit is forthright about his desire to personally connect with audiences. Asked about some of the highlights of promoting The Red Turtle since its premiere last year at Cannes, he beams. ‘The biggest highlight has been hearing about the personal responses people have had to the film. It is very rewarding to hear that it has moved them in some way.’

Narratively The Red Turtle strips things down to essentials, and all the better to stir our emotions. The film opens on a scene of peril, as a lone shipwreck survivor is tumultuously washed up on a tropical island. Once he’s retained his bearings, the man makes a raft out of bamboo trees, only for it to be smashed to pieces by a mysterious presence in the surf. He tries again, but the same thing happens, forcing him back to shore.

‘I have always loved the turtle,’ says de Wit. ‘I wrote an essay on the turtle when I was 10, and it has stayed with me since. There’s something beautiful about her coming from the sea, but then also back, to infinity. That is what the sea is for her, it is infinity. I have seen clips of this, and also once in person’.

The survivor responds with far less equanimity to the turtle’s arrival onshore, viciously beating it in a reminder that de Wit’s animated world is certainly not an animal fantasia a la Disney. But when a red-tressed woman appears, The Red Turtle begins its flight into a magical realism worthy of García Márquez. This otherworldliness is compounded by the film’s most daring subtraction – a complete lack of dialogue.

‘The film started out with dialogue, but it didn’t feel right. As soon as the man would speak, you would know his nationality, his education, and so on. I didn’t want him to talk to himself. The suggestion to drop all dialogue came from Studio Ghibli. I was reluctant at first, but then as I got used to the idea, I was very excited.’

The genesis of de Wit’s involvement with the legendary Japanese studio would itself leave most filmmakers speechless. Impressed by his 2000 Oscar winning short film Father & Daughter, Studio Ghibli emailed de Wit out of the blue to gauge his interest in making a full length feature. Agreeing before he’d even finished reading their message, he thus became the first ever non-Japanese person to direct a film with the studio. 

‘It took me a while to come down!’ relates de Wit, reflecting on what it was like to accept. If Ghibli gave him the push he needed to do without dialogue though, they generally encouraged de Wit to follow his own vision. This couldn’t have happened ‘if The Red Turtle had been produced by an American or even British company - there would have been a lot more interference from the studio, more questioning of the project’.

The Dutch-British filmmaker is no stranger to animation from the Far East. de Wit points in particular to drawings by Zen Buddhist monks, Chinese comics art, and Oriental calligraphy as key influences. Looking again at his short films, you can see what he means: their boldness of line and muted palettes allow a wabi-sabi vibe to mesh fascinatingly with his Hergé-like designs.

‘One thing that has influenced me about art from these cultures is the use of empty space. It’s a bit more complicated than simply a white page of course, but the way empty spaces can evoke certain feelings and ideas is important to me’.

This seems particularly apt to The Red Turtle, in which the unoccupied island is at times gorgeously immersive – the bamboo forests especially – yet also often dangerous and desolate.

It’s tempting to read the film as ecological fable, but de Wit is wary of such easy categorisations. ‘I didn’t set out with ecological ideas in mind. But I have a deep respect for nature, and that is shown in the film. Ecology itself is the deep respect for nature’. His attention is more towards the environment as an all-encompassing life force – ‘I connect with the man, but also with the sea, the sky, the birds, the landscape’. 

Does this make The Red Turtle a masterful instance of the pathetic fallacy? Or is it an attempt to salvage natural sublimities we’ve never been more at risk of forgetting? de Wit isn’t about to confirm either way. The Red Turtle asks elemental questions, but places the answers in our hands, a universal tale that is also intensely personal – whether in its intended affective goals, or for being unmistakably the work of Michaël Dudok de Wit.