Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 17, 2024 11:40 am 
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Welcome to Madagascar, 1972, "le lieu de tous les plaisirs" - and then farewell

These are embroidered and colorful autobiographical memories of a childhood period spent in a French colonial paradise. Though technically Madagascar became independent in 1960, twelve years later France is still being very paternalistic. The island has yet to liberate itself fully - as will be made evident by the revolt of the indigenous Malagsy people at the end. Sly eight-year-old Thomas Lopez (Charlie Vauselle) is the writer-director's alter ego, the hidden eye in many adult scenes he shouldn't be seeing and doesn't fully understand. His mother Colette is played by bee-sting-lipped Nadia Tereszkiewicz of Forever Young and Rosalie, his father Robert, alpha male of the group, by Spanish-born Quim Gutiérrez.

Peter Bradshaw was effusive about this movie, giving it a 5 our of 5 stars in the Guardian. (See his review for descriptions of many of the film's "glorious setpieces.") It is beautiful, but calmed and distanced by nostalgia - not as arresting and emotionally vivid as his gay-themed two previous films, Eastern Boys and 120 BPM.

Nor has it the psychological detail and realism of "We Are Who We Are," Luca Guadagnino's adventurous 8-hour HBO miniseries set on an American military base today near the Venetian suburb of Chioggia, where two gender-questioning fourteen-year-olds come of age. Campillo does however set his barely post-colonial world in sharp perspective, with fantasy interludes based on Thomas' comic book readings. There is a lot of good material, and images whose richly saturated color is a delight to the eye. The indirect way so much is represented puts us at one emotional remove, though, and the revolutionary finale is an odd new direction - though the filmmaker has shown a penchant for strong narrative shifts before, in the twists and surprises of Eastern Boys.

Thomas's school friend is a Vietnamese girl called Suzanne (Cathy Pham), who announces that to talking, she prefers "observing people." That's fine by him. They both adore the fictional girl Fantômette. Eventually Thomas takes to dressing up like her in tights, cape, and mask for his spying exploits. Suzanne thinks it would be fun to be an orphan like her "sometimes," to see what it's like. Some interludes end with Thomas being found hiding under the table or behind a wall. But others go into so much detail, the child-framing is lost. This is true both in the dramatic finale of the Malagsy demonstrators, and the marital breakdown of a new young couple on base, Bernard (Hugues Delamarlière) and Odile (Luna Carpiaux), and when Odile can't stand "abroad" and disappears and Bernard has an alcohol breakdown at a grand party given for the general, and a scandalous affair with a Miangaly brothal woman (Amely Rakotoarimalala). Thomas couldn't have seen all that. Still, the scenes between Suzanne and Thomas are wonderfully delicate, and their busy flights by small bicycle from place to place pull the film's episodes together.

Described in more conventional visual terms are events like macho dad Robert's rash gifting of three baby crocodiles to the three boys (Thomas' brothers aren't much identified, though the bigger, with his dramatic eyebrows, is vividly shown) - leaving to trouble and a reprimand from the commandeer when the older brother puts them in the public pool; of Thomas'' purchase of two gemstones from a traveling salesman that Robert - urning artistic - designs a striking ring for, to give to Colette.

The most memorable of the scenes are the parties and the air missions. Robert is involved in an airdrop of several dozen native parachutists to put down a revolt of agriculturalists. The French soldiers are here for this, but don't get directly involved. At parties a jovial and mustachioed fellow aviator declares what a "place of all pleasures" this island is, "le lieu de tous les plaisirs." It's evident the French have plenty of leisure to enjoy their status as colonial remnants in a lovely tropical place. But there are goings on fed by idleness, such as the wife-swapping or rivalries shown when one man dances flirtily with Colette, and Robert then dances flirtily with that man's wife. When someone comes with photos of sexual native statues, the blasé French parents don't mind Thomas glimpsing them. It's an indulgent and sophisticated world. But as Bradshaw says, Thomas is never used as a go-between, nor do we get direct images, till the end, of the "other" world of the local, indigenous, ostensibly now in charge people, or what they may think.

There is a farewell sequence, when all the French are preparing to leave this last base on the island. Suzanne tells Thomas she is not leaving, and says goodbye to him. He pouts for a long time, sitting on the ground, refusing to pose for a goodbye-to-all-that family photograph his father stages - though eventually he is coaxed into it and poses in front of the group, his father squatting and embracing him with both arms. But Thomas is bitter: he has said he wished he'd never come here, because he must leave.

There is nothing of the native point of view, that is, until Barnard's brothel girlfriend is with his restaurant coworker at the place they work, after hours, drinking good champagne. Thomas dozes off; and she says this is the time when you can relax with a white man, when he falls asleep - a memorable remark that suddenly puts everything in perspective.

In the final interlude - which we can't quite imagine Thomas as witnessing - local demonstrators who have been arrested and sent by he Malagasy governor to a penal colony, then in a surprise, and welcome, reversal brought back by plane and set free. Emerging one by one, three of the rebel political leaders stand outside the plane one by one, grasp a portable loudspeaker, and give an inspiring speech. It's a whole statement about how a young ex-colonial nation should find itself. An interesting, and highly relevant set of ideas. But however well-staged, this sequence can't help seeming tacked on. In its way Red Island is wonderful filmmaking and as personal as Campillo's previous two films Eastern Boys and BPM/120 battements par minute., but there is something relatively a little quaint and frozen in amber about it, but this is a beautiful, well-made film.

Red Island/L'Île rouge, 116 mins., released theatrically in France May 31, 2023, also showed at the Cannes/Le Chesnay, London, San Sebastián and Goteborg festivals. AlloCiné press rating 3.5=70%, spectators 2.7=54%. Screened for this review as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York (Feb. 29-Mar. 10, 2024. Showtimes:
Tuesday, March 5 at 3:45pm
Saturday, March 9 at 6:15pm (Q&A with Robin Campillo)


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