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Not an animator, just an animation lover. Feminist, researcher, tea drinker, sometimes blogger.

What makes a Ghibli film? Thoughts on THE RED TURTLE

September 26, 2016

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The debut feature of Michaël Dudok de Wit, who previously won an Oscar for his animated short Father and Daughter (2000), is now playing nationally in Australian cinemas. The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) is, in short, remarkable –  stunningly animated, the fable-esque story strikes a balance between melancholy and uplifting. It accomplishes so much without its characters ever speaking a single word. With a professional animation career stretching back to the early 1980s, Dudok de Wit’s direction is assured without feeling overbearing; the story of a man trapped on dessert island becomes profound, rich and incredibly moving.

Much has been made of the involvement of Studio Ghibli in this project, with reviews, articles or profiles quick to underscore that this film is the first international co-production that Ghibli has taken part in. It’s certainly an animator’s dream come true – Ghibli reached out to Dudok de Wit after Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies; The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) saw Father and Daughter, the studio expressing an interest in working with him if he ever made a feature film. Dudok de Wit speaks quite candidly about what it was like having Ghibli produce the film, and his audience Q&A at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) provides some wonderful insight  into his thought processes and inspirations.

But why are we so quick to highlight the Ghibli connection? In a way it makes perfect sense to refer to Ghibli when talking about The Red Turtle  – the interest aroused by anything connected to Ghibli is undeniable, with nearly all of the films produced by the studio receiving critical acclaim. Distributors do so because the name will draw in an audience – indeed, when I first heard of the film, it was the Ghibli name that piqued my interest. Nearly every review and article about the film also points out the connection; I’m doing the exact same thing here, in a way. However, the over-emphasis on the Ghibli connection may be misleading, and fails to celebrate the achievement of Dudok de Wit.The  problem arises when we go beyond simply naming Ghibli as co-producers, and start calling The Red Turtle a “Ghibli film”.

The problem with calling The Red Turtle a Ghibli film is that the name Ghibli has become somewhat synonymous with the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and The Red Turtle is not a Miyazaki film. Miyazaki, in fact, had nothing to do with the production at all:

Miyazaki, was not involved in the film at all. He saw the film only recently, about 10 days ago. He made some nice compliments, and this is from someone who is very difficult. (Dudok de Wit, The Verge, TIFF Q&A)

The films of Miyazaki have something of a transnational appeal [1] draw from aspects of European culture (seen especially in films like Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)) as well as aspects of Japanese culture and the Shinto religion – his work often shows humans seeking a balance with nature, visions of childhood, and a fascination with flight and history, especially military history, whilst being decidedly anti-war. They are fantastical and nostalgic. Aesthetically, stylistically, the films of Miyazaki seem to be most representative of the “in-house” style of Studio Ghibli (it’s easy to point at a character and say – “That’s a Ghibli character”). But Miyazaki isn’t the only director working at Ghibli; Isao Takahata, co-founder of Ghibli, has also produced a number of critically acclaimed works for the studio (including an Oscar nominee). Whilst some resemble the more publicly recognised Ghibli style, others such as My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) are visual distinct, preferring a softer, water-colour palette to the more striking visuals of, say, Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) or The Wind Rises (2013). Takahata’s films are deeply introspective, and like Miyazaki’s are drawn variety of subject matter (such as war, nature, family and Japanese folklore). If Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle can be compared to a Ghibli film, then it is more closely aligned with a Takahata film – the themes of isolation and solitude, the contemplation of human nature and one’s relationships, feels closer to something that Takahata would create. Dudok de Wit has also expressed his admiration for Takahata:

…he has a sensitivity, which I can relate to, in his films, to nature, to human nature. He loves the philosophical side of things. He loves talking about culture, symbols, the emotions, the finer things of film, and I like that, too. So in that sense, we worked well together. (The Verge, The Red Turtle Q&A)

In reality, there were over a dozen production companies and distributors involved in The Red Turtle including Wild Bunch (who were big investors) and Why Not Productions, Prima Linea (where most of the animation was done), and Belvision. These were the other key producers of the film, and much of the animation was in fact done in Europe for practical reasons – Japan was just too far away. Studio Ghibli provided the “initial spark” and Takahata’s feedback was no doubt invaluable, but the film that is the end result of all this hard work is a film of a truly unique vision – this is a Michaël Dudok de Wit film. It is a film about solitude, longing, and learning to find peace and joy in a situation you might not necessarily expect.

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[1] – Teo, Stephen. The Asian Cinema Experience: Styles, spaces, theory. Routledge; New York, 2013.

Review: La Belle Saison

September 24, 2016

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Delphine (Izïa Higelin) is a young woman who has spent almost her whole life helping her parents work their farm in rural France. Upon moving to Paris, she meets Carole (Cécile de France), a Spanish teacher and a feminist activist. Despite the fact that Carole is in a relationship with radical writer Manuel (Benjamin Bellecour), the two fall passionately in love, which leads Carole to leave her beloved city life and join Delphine in the countryside when a family emergency calls Delphine back home. This would be a rather unremarkable love-story if not for the fact that the film is set in 1971, against the backdrop of the emerging feminist movement. On top of this all this, Delphine is at pains to hide her sexuality from extremely conservative parents and community, who have long expected her to settle down and marry the son of a neighbouring farmer. 

La Belle Saison (Summertime) is refreshing because director Catherine Corsini (Leaving, 2009) allows the natural passions and raw emotions of what was a relatively new movement mould the film. Refreshingly, the film does not shy away from the conflicts within this wave of feminism (conflicts which often take place, though perhaps in a different form, today). It would be disingenuous to pretend feminism was or is perfect, or that there is always agreement. For all the fiercely joyous scenes of Carole, Delphine and others staging protests for women’s right to have abortions, or pinching men’s bottoms in the street “because they do it to us”, there jarring are reminders that there has never been consensus. One scene sees the group arguing about whether or not to ‘liberate’ a gay man from a mental institution after his family have had him committed – some of the members argue that it doesn’t affect them, and that it would derail their primary goal of equality for women. It is only after Delphine angrily speaks out (they are still not aware of her sexuality), that they agree to go.

The success of the film is that it teases out tensions between two very different personalities – Carole’s love of the city and Delphine’s connection to her farm and the country are played out in how they present themselves and their opinions to the world. Carole, a vibrant performance by de France, is free-spirited and passionate, unafraid to shout her opinions to the world. Delphine is more cautious and pragmatic, and as much as she is in love with Carole, still feels a deep sense of responsibility and obligation to her mother in particular (a wonderful performance from Noémie Lvovsky). Higelin performance as Delphine is dignified and restrained, emotions threatening to spill over at any moment as the stress of concealing her true feelings grows. Whether or not their relationship will survive hinges on whether or not Carole can accept that living as freely and openly as they might do in Paris is simple not as easy as they wish it could be.

Although the films conclusion slightly undermines the emotional impact of the story, overall La Belle Saison is masterful and romantic, and far more politically nuanced than the usual romantic drama; it is well worth viewing.

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