Q&A: ‘Red Island’ director Robin Campillo on his hypnotic drama

Robin Campilllo.
Robin Campilllo.
Gilles Marchand

This year’s Rendezvous with French Cinema program features out gay writer/director Robin Campillo’s hypnotic drama, “Red Island.” This film, inspired by the director’s own life, unfolds largely around a military base in Madagascar, from 1970 to 1972. Campillo chronicles the lives and experiences of various individuals, shooting much of the film through the eyes of Thomas (Charlie Vauselle), a sensitive (read: gay), 8-year-old boy. (His father twice calls him a sissy). 

Yet the film is also a marvelous coming-of-age story for the adult characters, too, including Bernard (Hugues Delamarlière), a handsome young man who works as a waiter in the officer’s mess hall and cheats on his wife Odile (Luna Carpiaux) with the local Miangaly (Amely Rakotoarimalala). “Red Island” also charts the Malagasy people as they break free of French colonialism.

Campillo’s strength as a filmmaker is to wholly immerse viewers in this world, and he does this with a film as rich and as visually textured as the lives of the characters presented. The gravel outside the officer’s mess is as palpable as the surface of an aragonite table that Thomas rests his head on. As Thomas spies on the adults, quietly observing his parents Colette (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) and Robert (Quim Gutiérrez), as well as Bernard and others, he learns about their hidden lives. 

Campillo spoke with Gay City News about making “Red Island.”

What prompted you to tell this story, and do so largely from the perspective of Thomas?

I was this young child in Madagascar at the time. I lived there between 1969 and 1971. For me, it is naturally a queer perspective. It [captures] the moments I realized — because we were living on this military base — how I was in a very virile environment. It was weird for me. The grownups were trying to create a kind of magical “show” because we were living in a fake paradise. But I could see uniforms and weapons. I was amazed by this paradoxical situation, so I wanted to talk about this moment of late French colonialism through the perspective of a child inspired by his mother and the female characters like Fantômette [a comic book detective]. I was interested in this contrast between strong masculinity and the politics of colonialism and the dreamy place which was more related to my mother and the comic book I was reading. I loved the contradictions of this situation.

This is a coming-of-age story, not just about Thomas, but also all of the characters, from Bernard to the Malagasy people. What observations do you have about the characters in this time and place? 

All the characters are like children. The young boy is a child in his family, but the mother is a child in front of her husband, and her husband is a child in front of the military superiors, and the Malagasy people are like children for the French people. All these systems were working because they were an illusion. We were all trying our best not to get conscious of this theatrical play. My mother is dead now; I didn’t talk with her about this period of our life. People are like children; they do their best to create this paradise and be part of it. I told the actors that they have to find a “fake natural” — they must overplay all the scenes. I love this idea. I remember it was the beginning of my consciousness. The adults are playing characters in front of children. The first meal together, I remember distinctly the adults were there to amuse the children; that was at the same time funny and creepy. 

All of the characters have a hidden or double life. Can you discuss that theme?

I love that, because when I was imagining myself as a detective/Fantômette, it was because I saw grownups were playing characters in front of me. I guessed that they were hiding something and there was more to know about them. Reality became more interesting to me. I love Bernard especially — he is always sincere. He is in love with his girlfriend [Odile]. Then he has another girlfriend. He is really connected to his lies and illusions. You can be sincere in a world of pure illusions. 

The film is gorgeous, and I love how you feature certain images that express this idea of hiding, from Thomas spying on folks from inside a giant box, or from behind a glass door. Can you discuss your visual approach to the material?

I wanted to talk about the idea of cinema and how it was connected to my gaze and the way I was looking at others. I was fascinated to see them through a screen, hence the scene with the glass door. I love the [big] box, which is like a camera box. You are hidden, but you can observe others. I had this box in reality, and it was fascinating to stay in there and to observe the people around me. I tried to use all these memories to create a universe, a system of blooming consciousness.  

Can you talk about the various portraits of masculinity, which range from the sensitivity of Thomas to the innocence of Bernard, and the toxicity of Robert?

The father is really trapped in his own masculinity. When he gets angry towards his one of his sons, you realize he is playing his character, but he knows that he [himself] is wrong, and he does it anyway. I love to show characters trapped in their masculinity and how they are supposed to act. He tells his wife she is wearing too much makeup. It’s a sad trap. 

In contrast, Bernard, who seems sweet and delicate with the women, when he is dancing with his girlfriend in the officer’s mess, he becomes more and more toxic, as we would say today. He is touching her as if she belongs to him. This nice guy becomes more and more threatening. He grabs her like the French military are grabbing the island — like a possession. They are trapped in their own masculinity and their own power and domination. 

Being around that masculinity has an impact on Thomas. 

As a child, it was interesting to see that. I was in a paradoxical situation, I was feeling this masculinity as a threat, but as a young queer child, I thought it was sexy. It’s not an age where you realize that. The fact that Thomas is wearing the costume of a female character [Fantômette] and going out at night, that is interesting to me. It was the first glance at “clandestinity” — a young gay guy going out to find partners at night, outside. It was learning how to escape society to live your own life, as if your own life, the real life, was clandestine. 

Robin Campillo will participate in a post-screening Q&A on March 9. For tickets and more information, visit https://www.filmlinc.org/films/red-island/

“Red Island” | Directed by Robin Campillo | Screening at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center on March 5 at 3:45 pm and March 9 at 6:15 pm as part of Rendezvous with French Cinema.