Monday, March 26, 2012
The Castaways of Turtle Island
It took the criminally overlooked New Wave auteur Jacques Rozier a decade to follow up his debut Adieu Philippine with the charming Du côté d'Orouët, but only three years later he'd completed his third feature, The Castaways of Turtle Island. This absurdist, whimsical comedy of tourism and European exoticist fantasies is quite different in tone from Rozier's charming but melancholy first two features, though it shares with them a fascination with escapism and seaside vacations, a love of the sun and the ocean, and a tendency to see in the bourgeois holiday an expression of desperation. Ridiculous, alternately satirical and goofy, and beautifully shot, this is yet another fantastic film from this nearly forgotten French master.
The premise is absurd right from the start, though Rozier, never one to rush his films or overload them with narrative, takes his time getting to the actual story. The film opens with a leisurely character study of the Parisian travel agent Jean-Arthur Bonaventure (Pierre Richard), a dreamer who, during the opening credits, stares into a lamp in his apartment and imagines a beautiful black girlfriend for himself. He's bored of his routine, of his job, of his fiancée (who never even appears in the film, she's so irrelevant), and he wants to escape. As his name already suggests, he wants adventure, a romanticized retreat from his prosaic life. And adventure, for him as for so many white Westerners, means the exotic, the foreign, the non-white, so he fantasizes about having an affair with a black girl, and sure enough the girl he's imagined turns out to be real, and offers to have sex with him virtually as soon as they meet, a sure sign that Jean-Arthur is still immersed in his fantasy, turned on by the otherness and the unlikeliness of this affair.
Soon, Jean-Arthur and his friend Joël (Maurice Risch) decide to take this exoticist fantasy to the next level, and this is where the film's real plot kicks in: they concoct the idea of a tourist package that has no package, no plan, just a trip to a desert island where the vacationers will have to "fend for themselves" like Robinson Crusoe. The agency's owners love it because there's no overhead and a huge profit margin, and soon Jean-Arthur, together with Joël's brother Bernard (Jacques Villeret), is haplessly leading a troupe of tourists on a Caribbean adventure. Bernard, AKA "Little Teddy," is the Sancho Panza to Jean-Arthur's Don Quixote, calmly trudging through this increasingly absurd adventure as Jean-Arthur gets more and more into the spirit of this retreat from civilization, forcing ever more ludicrous restrictions onto the tormented tourists, who had just wanted a relaxing holiday in the sun and instead find that they're marching through the jungle hauling their luggage and enacting a shipwreck fantasy in which the dictatorial Jean-Arthur throws their bags overboard and demands that they swim to shore with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
It's obvious that the film is a manic parody of the touristic impulse, explicitly connecting this kind of exotic Western tourism to the evils of colonialism. When Jean-Arthur and Bernard first arrive on one of the "desert islands" they're exploring, Jean-Arthur plants a flag and claims the place like an old-school colonialist, declaring it a property of France and promising to import slaves to work the land. Bernard then declares it a republic instead, says they'll free the slaves and set up hotels and casinos, and make a huge profit — which will, he disingenuously insists, help the natives and former slaves as well, since "everyone is free to invest their capital." Obviously, this capitalist tourism is just a different kind of colonialism, a friendlier way of exploiting picturesque, "exotic" locales for the benefit of Europeans. The film is a prolonged reductio ad absurdum in which Rozier ceaselessly mocks these clueless urban Westerners who have romanticized the exotic islands of the Caribbean and decided that they want what they think will be a glamorously "authentic" tropical adventure.
Rozier's films have a tendency to get quietly sad and contemplative in their final acts, and though The Castaways of Turtle Island never quite sheds its weird sense of humor, it does slow down momentarily for a gorgeous, meditative sequence in which the group finally arrives at their ultimate island destination, and night descends slowly around them. Most of the group has stayed behind on their boat, while Bernard has gone ashore with Julie (Caroline Cartier), one of the most practical and citified of the tourists, and Jean-Arthur, enraged by the group's resistance to his latest looney demand, tries to swim to the island by himself. Rozier beautifully captures the moody descent of night onto this tense scene, the sun glistening at the horizon, everything turning shades of purple and blue, Bernard and Julie silhouetted against the water, watching as Jean-Arthur flounders around in the currents.
Indeed, for all his mockery of the touristic impulse, Rozier is very attuned to the natural splendor and sensual pleasures of these Caribbean vacation destinations, and the film is consistently lovely: one feels, in Rozier's images, the cool rush of the breeze, the bouncing and swaying of a boat on the ocean, the warm and wet atmosphere of a jungle path winding around towards a majestic waterfall. This is a beautiful, savagely funny, often bizarre film, a comic adventure that adds another dimension to Rozier's small but incredibly impressive oeuvre.