Robin Campillo’s strengths as both a writer and a director revolve around his ability to personalize the most sprawling of ensemble pieces, never allowing viewers to get lost despite the dozens of characters his stories introduce. Following his prior film BPM, among the finest of the past decade, he has returned with another work that, while rooted in autobiography, has no interest in merely bringing his own formative memories to the screen. But while his previous feature put each of the characters in a wider shared journey within the ACT UP movement, Red Island isn’t able to tie its vast ensemble quite as neatly; many central figures remain underdeveloped throughout, and a sudden shift in focus in the closing chapter only highlights how lacking for insight the movie is when it comes to exploring the post-colonial political backdrop of its Southern African setting. 

Red Island is set in Madagascar in the early 1970s, a strange transitional period for the island nation; a decade after they formally became a Republic, but still with several ties to their former colonizers, right up to the continued presence of the French army. Campillo himself grew up in an army base, and here we follow the experiences of his screen surrogate Thomas (Charlie Vauselle), a comics-obsessed youngster fascinated by the lives of the adults around him––always hiding in plain sight to catch glimpses of conversations that are decidedly not for young ears.  

Even more than his prior work, Red Island is unshackled by burdens of narrative, operating as a loose patchwork of lived-in memories that are most engaging when filtered through the young protagonist’s perspective; adults discuss their affairs unaware they’ve got an impressionable child hanging onto their every word from under the table, or behind a closed door. These are the moments Campillo’s film is at its most striking, but it very frequently deviates from the framing we’re supposed to be viewing these scenes through, to frustrating effect––a personal film that can’t completely commit to the child’s-eye POV that makes it feel so singular.   

One such time the film does succeed in anchoring a child’s viewpoint is through a range of heightened comic book interludes, as Thomas and his Vietnamese friend Suzanne (Cathy Pham) bond over reading the adventures of the young caped crusader Fantômette, one of which forms the film’s delightfully left-field cold open. Immediately we’re introduced to a teenage girl in a Zorro-adjacent costume, the only human onscreen fighting against various over-the-top villains in a child-friendly noir playground––a less-threatening take on something like Dark City. The extended interrogation scene that opens the film lasts long enough that you can imagine some theater patrons leaving to go and ask the ticket checker if they walked into the wrong screening. The comic book sequences aren’t lazy approximations of the narratives taking shape in Thomas’s life either, which works to the film’s benefit––with each interlude arriving completely unprompted, it has the authentically disorienting effect of a child who is bad at storytelling trying to piece together everything they did today into a single, incoherent anecdote.  

Unfortunately, the most damning thing about Red Island might be that these silly superhero interludes are more attention-grabbing than the personal coming-of-age drama itself, offering a distinct take on an oversaturated genre that suggests Campillo could easily thrive in the blockbuster realm. These do eventually weave into the main narrative in the third act as Thomas spies on his elders while in a Fantômette costume––another indication that Red Island only becomes richer the further from direct autobiography it strays. Admittedly, this might be because it’s far more committed to the cohesive portrayal of its heightened fantasy sequences than it is the POV we view the character drama from; if the story were told entirely from Thomas’s perspective, keeping us at arm’s length from getting to know his family beyond his limited understanding of their personal lives, then the fact they aren’t as richly sketched out as characters in his prior ensemble tales wouldn’t be an issue. But we frequently see them away from him, not just catching cryptic glances at their private lives from behind closed doors, further illustrating how thinly drawn (to the point of being entirely unengaging) they are. 

However, for all its missteps, Red Island isn’t the disaster many feared following reports that the film was unanimously rejected by the Cannes selection committee, unceremoniously debuting to little fanfare in French cinemas just a week after the festival wrapped––the clearest sign producers were hoping for a competition debut. The film may not hold together cohesively, but it’s still quite mystifying why it so spectacularly failed to resonate when its greatest sequences are beautiful evocations of the director’s childhood, both real and imagined, even if it is forever destined to live in the shadow of his previous semi-autobiographical work. The further removed Campillo gets from this perspective, the less assured Red Island feels. I got the sense there’s a marvelous coming-of-age film hidden somewhere within the DNA of his story––this iteration, alas, isn’t it. 

Red Island screened at the BFI London Film Festival.

Grade: C+

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