‘Red Island’ Review: Robin Campillo’s Disjointed but Alluring Memory Piece

Following the bracing sexual and political candor of “BPM,” writer-director Robin Campillo‘s much-laureled film about HIV/AIDS activism in 1990s Paris, “Red Island” initially appears to be a retreat into cozier nostalgia — a child’s-eye view of life on a French military base in 1970s Madagascar, flooded with sunlight, awash with the thrill of youthful exploration. That might seem an obtuse way to portray a time and place rife with fractious post-colonial tensions, only a couple of years before the African territory freed itself from the French Community to become a fully-fledged republic. But “Red Island” is a cannier work than that, slowly deromanticizing its purposely naive view of European family life, before sharply jackknifing into a different perspective, even a different film, altogether.

That switch is both arresting and jarring — a structural pivot that makes for a film easier to admire than it is to embrace. Yet its autobiographical elements are keenly felt, as Campillo grapples intelligently not just with the blind spots of his personal past, but those of his national heritage. Unexpectedly absent from certain major festivals and met with lukewarm reviews on home turf, “Red Island” hasn’t quite the assurance or brio of “BPM” or Campillo’s directorial debut “Eastern Boys,” but still confirms its helmer as a major name in contemporary French cinema — one who can fill a sprawling period canvas with considerable visual imagination and sensory detail.

The film opens with a disorienting flourish of fantasy: a miniature caper set in a stylized toytown of cardboard and felt, following the crime-fighting exploits of Zorro-masked child superheroine Fantômette (Calissa Oskal-Ool). It turns out these are the vivid imaginings of ten-year-old Thomas (Charlie Vauselle), inspired by his favorite series of comic books; such daydreams recur throughout the film, indicative of a young mind that readily drifts from reality. Still, there’s adventure and intrigue aplenty in Thomas’ everyday life, which plays out, after all, on a tropical African island far from his homeland. He just needs to know where to look for it — when, aping Fantômette, he begins his own nighttime investigations.

Thomas’ suave army officer father Robert (Quim Gutiérrez, radiating Belmondo-esque charm) and his mother Colette (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) aren’t overly concerned with their son’s exploits, parenting him and his siblings in vaguely permissive fashion. They’re largely distracted by strains in their own marriage, as Colette begins to doubt her husband’s fidelity. As well she might. An air of blasé sexual liberty permeates the base, where soldiers frequent a brothel staffed by local Malagasy women — one of whom, Miangaly (Amely Rakotoarimalala), becomes an object of obsessive desire for new, married recruit Bernard (Hugues Delamarlière). Thomas’ nocturnal snooping turns up no comic-book crime, but it does make him an uncomprehending witness to such fragments of adult mischief.

Campillo sensitively captures the ensuing transition between childish fancy and disillusionment, which dovetails neatly with the Frenchmen’s apathetic shedding of colonial ideals — their days there are numbered, and everyone is waiting for the next chapter of their lives to begin. Not so passive are the Malagasy, restlessly reaching for their imminent independence, and backgrounded in the film until Miangaly seizes narrative focus in a denouement that centers her people’s revolution. Meanwhile, the white characters we hitherto assumed were the collective subject are cast into the margins. It’s a stark, pointed shift that will divide audiences: It’s hard not to wish Miangaly’s character had been more richly developed in parallel with the others throughout, though the symbolic impact of her tardy takeover is plain.

There’s a hint of self-effacement in Campillo’s demotion of his own coming-of-age tale, an acknowledgement of the smallness of his memories relative to the island’s own seismic story of the time, even if the film never quite gives itself over to more radical ideas. Yet the family scenes still carry weight and pathos, as Thomas gradually tunes into his mother’s suppressed sadness, and Robert’s alpha paternal gestures (including, most bizarrely, a gift to his children of baby crocodiles) take on a near-nihilistic desperation. DP Jeanne Lapoirie shoots the burnt-orange Madagascan days and the humid, inky nights with equally saturated intensity, making it an appropriate backdrop for emotions running hot and bothered on all sides. Campillo’s recall may have evolved and matured, but it clearly hasn’t faded.

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