Review of Red Island – exploring the effects of colonialism on French childhood in Madagascar’s stunning landscape.

Estimated read time 4 min read


Filmmaker Robin Campillo has embraced the nostalgic power of memory in his moving and personal work. With a delicate touch and artistic vision, he has created a stunning film that draws inspiration from his own childhood on a French military base in the newly independent Madagascar of the 1970s. The story follows a curious young boy as he observes and listens in on the secrets of adults, which remain a mystery to both him and the grownups themselves. ‘Red Island’ blends Campillo’s own poignant memories with the country’s transition from a colonized state to independent nation. It is a timeless depiction of childhood captured on screen.

Twelve years after its establishment as an independent republic in 1960, Madagascar still permits the presence of the French army to assist the national authorities. This has clearly become a plum posting for France’s military personnel: an island paradise (far more pleasant in their eyes than Algeria or Morocco) in which the actual business of governing, the heavy lifting of what Kipling called the white man’s burden, has effectively been passed on to the former imperial subjects.

The French officers in the military have some free time to spend with their families at fun parties, barbecues, and trips to the beach. They also have the opportunity to flirt with other spouses, creating an atmosphere of mischief and intrigue, similar to the events in the novel “White Mischief.” This is combined with a bit of the perfect and idealized town atmosphere of “Stepford,” which may be overwhelming to new wives who are not yet accustomed to the military lifestyle. Along with their sense of duty and readiness, there is also a sense of sensuality and monotony. The main character, Robert, is the strong and confident leader in his group, married to Colette. Their son, Thomas, is a curious and observant eight-year-old who often hides to observe the adult world around him. He is drawn in by glimpses and snippets of their lives without truly understanding it. In his free time, he loves reading about the superhero Fantômette and even has dream-like moments where he imagines himself as the masked crime-fighter. It is believed that this fantasy changes the weather in a mysterious and almost supernatural way.

Thomas becomes friends with Suzanne, a girl from Vietnam who is also known as Cathy Pham. They spend their days exploring and roaming the area, feeling the freedom that only comes with being a child. They discover a peculiar place called Lovers’ Wood, where they witness forbidden love between couples. Thomas also becomes a witness to the breakdown of a young couple, Bernard and Odile, who live nearby on the base. Robert, Thomas’ father, hosts a party where Thomas observes the swarming, fragmented images through a mottled glass door, similar to the design of an aragonite table that Robert recently purchased. Despite being macho, Robert has a keen sense of design and even helps design a ring for his wife using gemstones purchased from a travelling salesman.

Robert becomes angry when he sees his wife dancing with someone else, so he starts dancing provocatively with Odile. This may indirectly cause a major problem. Meanwhile, Bernard begins to have a breakdown due to excessive drinking, and he collapses at a large party held for a military leader, revealing a captivating scene. He also has a scandalous affair with Miangaly (played by Amely Rakotoarimalala), a woman from a brothel near the base. In a sense, Bernard starts to adopt the cultural customs of the local community, challenging the inherent hypocrisy and racism within the British military. In a shocking turn of events, Bernard is subjected to an exorcism by a seasoned priest on the base, Père Bertin (played by Vincent Schmitt). However, this ritual is actually a manifestation of the officers’ collective neuroses and a breakdown of the white officer class.

The story features impressive scenes, such as Robert’s impulsive decision to purchase three baby crocodiles for his children. However, their time on the island comes to an end when Thomas dresses in a costume made by his mother and takes on the persona of Fantômette, a crime-fighting hero, in front of Miangaly. This leads to a new segment of the film that showcases the bold and rebellious Malagasy people. Some may compare Red Island to Pacifiction, a surreal tale of French colonial sadness, but without the excessive self-absorption. Overall, it is a captivating and visually stunning piece of work.

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