The Red Island | L’île Rouge (2023)

February 25th, 2024
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir/Wri: Robin Campillo | Cast: Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Quim Gutierrez, Charlie Vauselle | France, Drama 115′

Robin Campillo follows his frenetic activist film 120bpm with this mystical, evocative childhood recollection of growing up on the Island of Madagascar during in one of the last French military bases of the French empire. The story is seen through the eyes of his character Thomas (Vauselle) whose caped comic book hero Fantomette adds an air of surreality to this dreamy island reverie with his nighttime sorties transforming the place into a secret world of exotic and illicit liaisons.

Life in the former French protectorate of Madagascar seems like any other colonial existence for the French people living there and awaiting repatriation in 1971. For Thomas this East African outpost, where he lives with his mother, father and two brothers in a simple bungalow, is an adventure playground full of wild and exciting possibilities courtesy of his caped adventurer Fantomette.

With its sense of adventure underpinned by reality this often feels like a Tintin adventure, but the cartoon character Fantomette – created in 1961 by the French graphic artist Georges Chaulet – is the whimsical Batman-like shadow. With a black mask and red-lined cape he provides the film with a layer of fun and intrigue in ingenious animation sequences that perfectly express Thomas’ boyhood imagination and lend a mischievous air of danger, a counterpoint to the everyday life on the military base where the spirit of native insurrection is still reverberating outside the walls of the encampment.

These daily demonstrations exulting in liberation inject an air of harsh reality into the ordered but rather hedonistic vibe of expat life. In the daily round of barbecues, swimming in the sea and boozy lunches Thomas’ parents Colette (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) and Roberto (Quim Gutierrez) are fully-rounded characters enjoying a vibrant sexual chemistry their sensuality always threatening to incandesce into an explosive episode that only adds to their allure.

Campillo records all this in the three strand narrative, but always retains his sense of boyhood wonder and playfulness through the amusing vignettes featuring the masked adventurer. Colette, a warm and tender mother, runs him up a cape and mask on her sewing machine, and once lights are out, the night becomes a thrilling time to explore. The island and its wildlife, vegetation and ordinary buildings, like the church, are transformed into a strange paradise in the light of the moon. After dark, Thomas’ imagination is set free as he discovers the mysterious goings on in a world beyond everything he has known before, transported by his guise as a boyish Fantomette. MT


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