The Red Turtle – Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016)

I believe this is the first animation film that I’m mentioning on this blog. I haven’t heard a lot about slow animation before, nor am I really a fan of animation. But it’s different with Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle. One could easily argue that the film doesn’t fit the Slow Cinema categories I have established on this site in the last five years. That was my very first thought, too, when the film had started. A lot of movement, comparatively quick cuts – there was something that made me wonder why some people have described this film as being slow or contemplative in the past. Just over an hour later, I agreed with those people and it is, funnily enough, the aspect of movement that, in parts, contributed to my change in thinking.

On the surface, The Red Turtle does not take its time with anything. In effect, the film tells the story of life in under seventy minutes. A man is caught up in a storm, is stranded on an island, tries to escape but a red turtle prevents him from doing so. In subsequent scenes, he falls in love, has a son, the son grows up pretty fast, leaves the island and he himself dies. So basically, it’s the natural circle of life told in a short time frame. In case you’ve been following my work for a long time, you probably know that I would always advocate for length in order to allow for an in-depth depiction of whatever is on screen. For The Red Turtle, this is slightly different and even though the sudden speed with which the story developed was startling at times, the film didn’t lose any of its smoothness.

And this is the key of the film that makes it so wonderfully slow and contemplative: its smoothness, its beauty. The Red Turtle is a magnificent, poetic piece that, despite looking like a speedy story-telling rollercoaster on the surface, takes its time. This sounds contradictory, I agree. And yet, apart from one sequence towards the end of the film, all scenes give the impression that life moves slowly, that it progresses in its own time. I mentioned the aspect of movement before. Especially character movement is not necessarily a major thing in traditional Slow Cinema. It’s there, but it’s limited. What struck me in The Red Turtle is the perfectly smooth, sort of zen movements. The film’s characters swim a lot, for example, and they do it, in parts, to enjoy the very act of swimming, to swim with turtles and imitate their slow and graceful movements, to become one with the still sea that surrounds them (up to a point, one should say).

Then there is the aspect of isolation and loneliness. The story is focused, first of all, on a single man only. He looks for food and for drinking water. He builds a raft in order to escape, but there is only so much you can do on your own on an island. So what the film does show is limited, is repetitive, is the daily survival of a man stranded in the middle of nowhere on an unnamed island. Curiously, once he gave up trying to escape, the film becomes very peaceful. It was his anger that gave the impression of a speedy story development, his rage against natural forces. But after that there is a real shift in tone in the film that, once established, made me sink into my seat and observe the images. I didn’t actually watch the film, I observed it. I wasn’t even distracted by the music. On the contrary, they helped me to feel the sort of isolated, limited life which, at the same time, is a life of complete freedom.

There is something mystic, something metaphorical about The Red Turtle. I felt that the film spoke about a million things, and yet only about one essential thing: life. In some ways, just like with major slow films spoken about on this blog in the past, the film’s utter simplicity, also in its drawing, highlights the beauty of it; of the film itself, of the story, of nature. I often thought about Chinese painting (I can’t let it go!), and was reminded of how often slow films focus on nature. Crucially, there is no dialogue in the film. Thoughts and feelings are expressed by actions only. Body language is the centre of the film, and aligns itself, once more, with other, more known and popular slow films. So maybe you begin to see the contradictory nature of The Red Turtle. Nevertheless, or maybe despite this, this animation film deserves being on this blog. It’s an interesting hybrid that made me rethink the framework I have established for myself. At the same time, it fits almost perfectly, and I’m absolutely delighted that it’s this film that has become the first animation mentioned on this blog. The year starts off well…

Slow reconciliation with nature

This morning, I left the house at 8 o’clock. I went to a bridge that is close to my flat and that overlooks the canal Saint Martin in Rennes. I waited a bit but decided to walk a little closer to my flat again. The canal to my right and new apartment buildings to my left, I was waiting for the sun to rise. It was a cold night, it had snowed the evening before too. I stood there for an hour, not moving much, my gaze fixed on the horizon…just there, behind the tree tops, I expected the sun to appear. I’m sure that the construction workers who could surely see me wondered why I was standing there doing nothing. But even though they could stop even for a minute to marvel about this wonder of nature, the beginning of a new day, they don’t do it. Time is money. Every lost minute means delay, and delay costs money. So, naturally they keep working while I’m watching this fireball slowly appearing behind the tree tops. A wonderful sunrise in the cold at 8.36am but not visible until 9am. I could see the small changes in the colour of the clouds behind me as they slowly turned pink. The sun had an effect on everything before I could even see it.

It was this morning that I thought a bit more about something I heard on radio the other day. France Culture posed the question whether we should reconcile with nature, and if so, how. I didn’t hear the entire broadcast as I had only just stopped teaching and was on my way home. The broadcast reminded me a lot of slowness, contemplation, of the idea of taking one’s time to really see. The reason I’m writing something on this blog is because they spoke about film. I had hoped they would mention slow film, but they didn’t. A missed chance but perhaps it’s something I can start here on The Art(s) of Slow Cinema.

One of the guests, Anne-Caroline Prévot, looked into the representation of nature in Walt Disney films for a research project and found that the face of Disney has changed a lot. No more Snow White’s singing with birds. Away with characters dancing in the green, appreciating the beauty of nature, being one with it. Since the 1950s, Prévot argues, Disney has adapted (I would even say reinforced) our decreased interest in nature, in its marvels. Nowadays its films show more brick buildings, city life, cobble stones people walk over than characters appreciating nature. It’s how life is these days. In the last decades, waves of migrants from the countryside have moved to the cities in order to find jobs. Countrysides are now deserted. France and Germany, for instance, face critical “medical deserts” where everything has closed because only a handful of people live in those regions and it wasn’t financially viable to keep even one doctor there. Life is city life nowadays, and cinematic representations very much go with the flow.

That said, we’re speaking about mainstream representation here. It is mainstream that shows us where and how we life, and that can propel us into the future. It is independent cinema that can remind us of what life should be, and could be. Slow Cinema, I believe, is one type of cinema that reminds us of the marvels of nature. Not only, I should say. But one of its main characteristics is that films are primarily set in nature, something Walt Disney has gotten rid off in the last couple of decades (apparently since the 1970s). It looks at empty places, places where people have stopped looking. It looks at those “deserts” that have become so widespread in our developed countries. But, most important of all, they function as a reminder to be. Not to make something, but rather to accept our surrounding and see the beauty in it. For that, it needs time, time which slow films give us. A film I recently saw comes back to my mind: Abbas Kiarostami’s Five. I’m also thinking of Lisandro Alonso’s films (La Libertad, etc), Alamar by Pedro Gonzales-Rubio or Semih Kaplanoglu’s wonderful Bal. 

These are, of course, narrative films. I believe that experimental films can go even further because they can dwell even longer without necessarily having to push a narrative forward. But there is also a wonderful book titled Cinema and Landscape by Graeme Harper and Jonathan Ryner. I’m aware that the broadcast was really about nature, but if you mention film you might want to take more than 2 minutes in really exploring how cinema represents our attitude to nature, but also how film, as a widespread form of entertainment, can help us to reconcile with nature. I strongly believe that Slow Cinema can do its share there and is already doing so. It’s not as visible as one might want it to be, but it’s there and good change is often a result of grass root movements…so maybe we’re seeing something in the making here!

(Little reminder: the tao films advent calendar is now available on our website. 24 short films until Xmas. A new film every day. Check out our website and check yesterday’s post for more info.)