There is no dialogue in The Red Turtle. Let’s get that out of the way at the start. I think in part because of that fact, the movie is often described as “sparse”. It follows a man’s life until he is very old, with graying hair and beard, and yet it is described as “small-scale”. True, the struggles of the unnamed protagonist are not about saving the world, but I find these descriptions—intentionally or not—unfairly dismissive. The movie is rich with emotion and artistry. It’s fully captivating.
In brief, the unnamed protagonist is introduced tossing in the waves during a mighty storm, presumably the survivor of a shipwreck (though this is never confirmed, so perhaps not). He washes ashore on a tropical island, but upon exploring the area finds that he is completely alone. After some time waiting for rescue, he sets upon building a raft in an attempt to escape from the island himself, but his attempts are stymied by an enormous red turtle. Later, the turtle transforms into a woman.
The primary thing I want to discuss here is the movie’s extraordinary success in communicating the thoughts, the feelings of its characters without the need for dialogue. The moment that I found most affecting both times I’ve seen the movie (once in the theater and once again last night) comes when the male protagonist expresses regret for how he treated the woman when she was a turtle. He had beaten the turtle in rage for having sunk his raft repeatedly. He winces, remembering his actions, then lowers his eyes in apology. The woman touches her hand to his forehead, runs her fingers down the bridge of his nose, and softly caresses his rough beard. Not only is her implicit acceptance of his unspoken apology touching in a human way, but the physical sensation felt by both characters in the moment comes across loud and clear. I can feel the woman’s hand running down the length of my own nose; I can feel the tufts of beard hair between my fingers the way they run through the fingers of the character on-screen.
Another like example occurs earlier in the film, when the male protagonist is alone on the island exploring. While stepping across a large boulder, he slips and slides down a chasm into a pool of water at the bottom. He scratches at the stone on either side of himself, hoping that he might be able to find a footing to climb up the way he’d fallen, but quickly realizes it’s fruitless. He’s left with only one option: swim down and try to slither through a tiny crack between the boulders. He takes a deep breath and dives, struggling to pull himself through as the space between the stones grows thinner and thinner. Once again, the terror and immense effort required to hold one’s breath for that time can be felt viscerally. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Part of the success of that sequence in particular also lies in the strings that rise to a crescendo on the soundtrack as our man pulls himself deeper. Though there isn’t any dialogue in the film (or very little, I should say), the sound design more than makes up for it. When the protagonist is first introduced sputtering in the waves, the sound of the rainstorm clattering against the ocean is overpowering. Later, when he is on his raft attempting to escape, the clatter of the turtle rocking the boat, then the silence apart from the sound of water lapping against the sides of the vessel before the final destructive blow, add so much to the tension of the scene.
Lastly, The Red Turtle is a sumptuous visual treat. It’s animated, but it’s pen-and-ink with little if any computer animation. The lines are crisp and the color palette soft, graceful. Purely on a scene-by-scene basis, it’s gorgeous to look at. Each frame is a work of art. When placed within the context of the narrative, it’s even more thrilling. As an example, there’s a scene later on in which one of the characters is swimming under the water, with three more large turtles gliding overhead. The water shimmers in a lovely, muted cerulean and gold where the sunlight sparkles through and that on its own makes for an impressive sight. But when viewed with the emotions of the moment in mind, the freedom, the jubilance of soaring underwater, it rises even higher.
With all this said, the message of the movie is murky. Not that it ought to have had a moral at its conclusion, or that unanswered questions are inherently a bad thing, but it almost feels as if the movie simply peters out at the end. Perhaps that’s exactly what the filmmakers intended. Perhaps the idea is that the movie will follow this unnamed man over the course of his life, then end unassumingly with the unspoken acknowledgment that the world will continue turning after this one man’s story is finished, that life will go on. Maybe! Yet it’s unclear if that really is what the movie is going for. It’s tempting to excuse the muddled ending as an artistic choice, intentionally ambiguous and therefore virtuous as a matter of right. I can’t bring myself that far, though. There’s so much here that I genuinely admire and find incredibly compelling despite the supposed “sparse”ness of its story, but I find the last moments to be the one weak spot.
Still, that’s such a minor complaint. Overall, The Red Turtle is overwhelmingly personal in its portrayal of its characters and spellbinding in the way it communicates their thoughts and feelings. It’s marvelously rendered as an animated feature, and though I did not mention it previously, frequently very funny. In particular, there is a group of crabs which interact with the human characters throughout the film in realistic but adorable ways. I’m so happy to have re-watched this movie; it is a wonderful treat.