From French writer-director Robin Campillo (120 BPM), Red Island is a visually rich coming-of-age story set in Madagascar at the tail end of French colonialisation. Thomas (Charlie Vauselle) lives with his family on the last military base on the island nation. He spends his time reading about the adventures of a masked crime-fighter named Fantômette in a shipping crate with his friend Suzanne (Cathy Pham). The action hero’s deeds inspire the youngster to closely observe what’s going on around him, which he does by spying on the adults on the island. Through these vignettes of adult life, Thomas begins to realise that the world can be different than it appears to be.
Inspired by Campilo’s own childhood spent on a military base, there’s a tangible tenderness woven through each scene. One sequence where Thomas gazes at the twisting shapes and colours of partygoers through mottled glass has a magical quality to it, sparked by childhood curiosity and wonderment. Moreover, the image of the child gazing at the distorted adult world beyond the glass is an apt metaphor for Thomas’s journey throughout the rest of the film.
Campilo and cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie have crafted a tremendously beautiful film. Every shot is framed exquisitely within a 35mm aspect ratio, as if audiences were watching the characters’ memories play out like home movies. However, it’s the colourful segments depicting Fantômette’s crime-fighting adventures which prove to be the most visually rich sequences. Presented as a pulpy kid’s show (think Adam West’s Batman), these set pieces delight with their saturated colours and oddball charm. It’s somewhat disappointing that these parts weren’t utilised more frequently. The repeated use of static shots coupled with meticulous framing and the endearing charm of the script generates a feel that’s similar in style to a Wes Anderson film. The result is a marvellously charming tale of childhood and memory.
Running at just under two hours, though, some scenes can run on a little past their welcome. Thankfully, events progress before things become dull. It’s not until the final 20 minutes that the filmmaker deploys the smartest trick in the feature, in which a seamless change in perspective presents the island paradise in a different light.
Frequently poignant and always visually spectacular, Campilo’s Red Island is a masterful portrayal of colonialism through a child’s eyes.
Red Island does not have a UK release date yet.
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Watch the trailer for Red Island here: