Apocalypse Don’t Look Now
Belgium is famously famous for being boring. Sure the Germans invaded it twice in the last century but they were only using it as a shortcut to get to France. With the possible exception of Plastic Bertrand, nothing else of much consequence has happened there. Throughout the Western world Belgium is seen as safe, a byword for boring. Which is why when I saw Belgian director Fabrice du Welz’s first feature, the repellent and fascinating Calvaire (The Ordeal) I remembered that it also produces serial killers of the calibre of Marc Dutroux. Like a particularly demented episode of The League Of Gentleman with fewer laughs and added buggery, bestiality, cross-dressing, moronic murderous inbreds and buggery (did I mention the buggery?), Calvaire was a nasty, disturbing, atmospheric little horror film which warned of the dangers of holidaying in the Belgian countryside. His second feature Vinyan, while far more restrained (at least initially) channels the subtle, low-key, personal horror of Don’t Look Now, the hallucinatory mindscape of Apocalypse Now and the exploitation flick sensibilities of Children Of The Corn to ensure no-one ever spends their gap year in South-East Asia ever again.
Six months after the 2004 Tsunami that devastated South-East Asia, ex-pat aid workers Paul (Rufus Sewell) and Jeanne (Emmanuelle Béart) are still struggling to come to terms with the loss of their son Joshua, swept away by the waters, never recovered. Obsessed by the belief that Joshua is still alive, Jeanne refuses to move on, constantly buys him new clothes, reasoning that he’ll have grown out of his old ones. Powerless to stop his wife’s slow mental disintegration, Paul has thrown himself into work while nursing his own guilt. They’re going through the motions; each trapped in their own private hell. However, hope raises its duplicitous head when Jeanne glimpses a child in a charity video of Burmese orphans. The video is grainy and indistinct but Jeanne is convinced it’s her missing son and, hiring themselves a local gangster as a guide, the enigmatic Mr Gao (Petch Osathanugrah), she and Paul voyage upriver into the heart of darkness where madness, death and a twisted salvation await them…
Opening with a disquieting rumbling which builds to a crescendo of off-screen death and destruction and climaxing with hysterical violence and one of the most beautiful and controversial scenes of last year (forget Charlotte Gainsbourg’s impromptu body modification in Antichrist, Vinyan’s final shot is genuinely shocking), Fabrice du Welz’s Vinyan is one boat ride you won’t forget in a hurry. Sharing similar themes with Lars Von Trier’s audience-baiting Antichrist (but lacking the queasy undercurrent of misogyny that turned Antichrist into po-faced arthouse torture porn), Vinyan is a dark meditation on the grief and trauma of losing a child masquerading as a horror movie.
Despite being lost in the jungle, at the mercy of Thai gangsters, threatened by Burmese pirates and menaced by a tribe of savage, feral children, it’s their own demons, the ones they brought with them into the jungle, that prove the biggest threat to Jeanne and Paul. Both characters are wracked with grief and despair. While the titular vinyan, the lost, angry, rootless spirits of the dead, ripped from life by the Tsunami, are a constant presence hanging over the film, the term could just as easily be applied to Paul and Jeanne whose lives stopped when their son was lost. Paul’s sense of guilt tortures him; the deeper into the jungle they travel, the more his nightmares start to bleed into his reality. Everywhere he looks, he sees Joshua, accusing him. Jeanne is a typically Greek tragic heroine; consumed by madness she is battling fate itself, a fury determined to reshape reality. In sharp contrast to his Western charges, the silky Mr Gao (who also lost his family in the Tsunami) has taken both a more rational and a more spiritual approach to his loss, having mourned and moved on. Cynical and pragmatic, he knows their quest will end in tears but his own greed damns him right along with them. They are all lost souls, ultimately being drawn to a fate past due.
A decent actor handicapped for most of his career by being irrationally handsome, Sewell has never been better than as Paul. He’s a walking open wound, searching for some measure of redemption and spiritual peace on a fruitless quest. As Jeanne, Emmanuelle Béart is quite simply stunning and her mental disintegration is both credible and haunting, her descent into irrationality almost a rational response to the grief consuming her. While it’s Béart’s raw, courageous performance that drives the film, Sewell, much like his character, is the one struggling to hold it together. They’re ably supported by Thai pop star/actor Petch Osathanugrah whose Mr Gao is an ambiguously threatening and seductive presence, almost stealing the film out from under them.
Stunningly photographed by cinematographer Benoît Debie (who also shot Irreversible), Vinyan works best on the level of a fever dream; deeply unsettling it abandons conventional narrative logic the further the characters stray into the jungle. Surreal and haunting, Vinyan is almost a sustained exercise in dread, creating an atmosphere of fatalistic inevitability that ultimately satisfies and disappoints in equal measure. Until that frankly stunning last scene which turns the film on its head, disturbing the viewer at a primal level. Shocking, captivating and intense, Vinyan is a visceral experience
Fabrice du Welz
Emmanuelle Béart, Rufus Sewell, Julie Dreyfuss, Petch Osathanugrah
Fabrice Du Welz, Oliver Blackburn