Inspired the director’s own childhood experience growing up on a French military camp in recently independent Madagascar during the early 1970s (just as the country prepared to rid itself from the last shackles of colonialism), The Red Island is an unlikely addition to the filmography of Robin Campillo. Partly seen from the perspective of a child, this movie is doused in plush fantasy and allegorical devices. A far cry from the far more straightforward, coherent and effective Eastern Boys (2013) and 120 BPM (2017).
The story takes place at the idyllic Base 181. The military facilities are surrounded by golden sands, turquoise waters and towering, verdant forests. Officer Robert(Quim Gutiérrez) boasts: “this is the place of all pleasures, a real little Gallic village”. Hw is married to Colette (Nadia Tereszkiewicz), and they have an eight-year-old child called Thomas (Charlie Vauselle). Much of the story is viewed from the boy’s perspective. He observes the developments by hiding behind the bushes or under the table, desperately trying to piece together random fragments of a complex social and political landscape. He has a loyal companion of around his age, a girl called Suzanne (Cathy Pham). Meanwhile, younger couple Bernard (Hugues Delamarlière) and Odile (Luna Carpiaux) experience a marital breakdown. The young male is infatuated with Miangaly (Amely Rakotoarimalala), a beautiful local working at the brothel (a popular destination amongst French officers).
This is a vague plot outline of this extremely confusing narrative. The script is very contrived, with the dialogues lacking freshness and spontaneity. There is very little character development. Is this intended to be a movie with an ensemble cast? Who knows. Far more crucially, there is barely any political contextualisation until the final 15 minutes of this (nearly) two-hour film. That’s of course a little too late. While the ending is elucidatory, moving and even a little cathartic, the first 100 minutes are extremely disengaging. It will take most viewers at least an hour before they start making heads or tails of the story. And there is a strange, unexplained perspective shift: most of the film is told from the point-of-view of a child, then it suddenly adopts the gaze of the colonised.
The aesthetics of The Red Island too strike a discordant note with Campillo’s earlier films, with a touch of Wes Anderson hitherto foreign to the French filmmaker. Exaggerated colours and dreamlike landscapes prevail. Plus, the movie is dotted with bizarre inserts of ultra-squeaky-voiced female superhero Fantômette fighting off evil villains, presumably a figment of the child’s mind. The outcome is profoundly irritating unless perhaps if you are familiar with the French book series from the 1960s (Fantômette is hailed the first female superhero in French literature, however mostly unknown outside the Francophone world).
The Red Island may have its heart in the right place, however its hands are convulsing uncontrollably up in the air. What is intended as a decolonising tale instead exoticises and fetishises Madagascarians to the point of defacement. You won’t learn much about their culture, language and aspirations (well, except for the final 15 minutes). This is a pity. Campillo’s fourth feature film has an interesting premise, a talented director and a sizeable budget (inferred from its high production values), however it falls prey to its own artistic ambition.
The topic of French imperialism in Africa persists as a current one. The former European colonial power has been accused of meddling and instilling instability in Niger. A prominent African leader described the country’s stance in the continent as “neocolonialist, condescending and paternalist”.
The Red island premiered in the Official Competition of the 71st San Sebastian Donostia Zinemaldia, when this piece was originally written. It premieres in October in the UK, as part of the BFI London Film Festival,