A man is lost at sea. He and his upturned boat are tossed by the waves of a terrible storm. His body is washed ashore on a golden beach crowded by dense, gently swaying bamboo forest. The man goes in search of help, and finds that he is stranded on a deserted island. So begins his life as a castaway. He works to build a bamboo raft and stock it with food to facilitate his escape. His days are ruled by the stillness of the island and by a certainty of purpose that stills his mind. At night he sleeps on the beach and dreams of freedom under the speckled sky.
He tries to sail away from the island, but a giant red turtle wrecks his raft and sends him swimming back to shore. He fumes at the unfairness of it, that this inscrutable creature has undone him. The world is a thing to be navigated, the wilderness a thing to be tamed, a man’s life is a circle to be straightened into a spear and hurled at the horizon. He will build a bigger raft and sail away from this limbo. He builds raft after raft, each one bigger, each one wrecked by the turtle. He screams at the island. When the turtle comes ashore to lay its eggs, the man murders it, and soon regrets what he has done. The turtle’s corpse miraculously transforms into a living woman, offering the man a chance to mend his sin.
The Red Turtle is a film of tremendous quiet beauty. It is a study in the barest terms of one man’s discovery that his will does not outweigh the world. The hand-drawn animation depicts the man with little detail and positions us to view his personal odyssey from afar. He is a speck of commotion at the centre of tranquil scenery that throngs with intricate, inanimate texture. His urgency seems irrational from the point of view of the grass and bamboo, wind and tide. All around him life teems without making a fuss. The absence of human speech (excepting an occasional ‘Hey!’) further puts us in a contemplative mood. The filmmakers offer us miracles and mundanity to contemplate, trusting that we won’t be bored if we take the time to really look.
What of the woman, what is she and who made her? Whether she is a spirit made flesh or the fever dream of a homesick castaway, she is the figure through which the man comes to accept his lot and see the bounty before him. She gives him companionship and a son, and she saves him from an almost certain death on his raft. It is not her story, but without her it would be a sad one. With her, the man is able to give up his escape for a settled life of contented routine.
Cyclical elements abound in the film. Waves rush up and down the beach as day turns to night turns to day. Generations of red turtle swim in the island’s waters and return to its familiar sands to lay the eggs of their young. A seaborne bottle is found and found again. When a tsunami breaks against the island and the man is swept far out to sea by the tide, he wants only to return to his family. His son eventually makes the voyage he abandoned, over the horizon and clear away. After the tsunami, the family gathers the debris and sets a bonfire. The island endures, the world turns. The man’s life remains a circle, holding all that he needs within it.