FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Mar 23, 2010

the journey is the destination

Fabrice Du Welz's Vinyan (2008) seems to have a polarizing effect on audiences...or at least that's my opinion after reading two wildly divergent reviews of it. Even after scoping out those reviews, I knew little of the film beyond its basic premise...and with critics drawing Cola Wars-style lines in the sand, I was nervous. Would I like it? Would I hate it? Would people like me if I liked it? Or hated it? Would watching it make me smarter or prettier? I tells ya, it had me on the edge of the edge of my seat.

Here's that basic premise I told you about: Six months after losing her son Joshua in a tsunami, Jeanne Bellmer (Emmanuelle Béart) thinks she spots the boy in a video about Burmese orphans. Her husband Paul (Rufus Sewell) thinks she's seeing only what she wants to see, but eventually agrees that they should investigate because...well, what if it's him?

The couple pays massive amounts of money to the shady Thaksin Gao (Petch Osathanugrah), who says that white children have been spotted amongst the orphans. He promises to find their son, so Jeanne and Paul board a boat with Gao and head from Thailand into Burmese waters. When leads prove false, Gao promises that just a little more money will get them closer, that Joshua is surely in the next village. Paul and Jeanne argue over whether or not they're simply being bilked; Jeanne's desperation eventually puts the entire party in terrible danger deep in the Burmese jungle.

That's really all I want to say about Vinyan in terms of plot- and to be honest, not much actually happens in the film. That seems to be the biggest complaint viewers have with the film- that we're constantly waiting for something- some big action sequence, some plot twist...something. Anything. The audience has expectations that need to be met, dammit, but Du Welz refuses to play by the rules. Still, people who are disappointed by the lack of "big moments" in Vinyan have a valid point- in fact, it's probably going to make or break the film for them.

As for me, I loved it. As detractors have noted, it may be a bit sluggish in the midsection (aren't we all?), it may be anemic in the soul department, and it may be pretentious- but Vinyan is all about the journey rather than the destination. And what a journey it is; as this post title indicates, I find that the journey is the destination.

The cinematography by Benoit Debie is a knockout. Every frame screams "art", albeit art heavily drenched in dread. The color-soaked streets Jeanne and Paul trudge through are as frightening as the rain-soaked jungle is later on; both are strange and otherworldly, full of grabbing hands and a distinct sense of the uncanny. Terror seems to lurk on the fringes, always just out of sight. The visuals of Vinyan are bolstered by the true star of the show: the sound design. The movie's abstract opening features almost music that builds and evolves into sorta gibberish- from the get-go, it's terribly unsettling and it doesn't let up.

Du Welz isn't afraid to let a moment hang...and hang...and hang. One particular scene comes to mind, and it's a simple one: the boat the Bellmers have hired slowly approaches shore and comes to dock. It seems to take forever, and the tension is almost unbearable. The jungle is shrouded in a heavy mist, the humidity palpable; the only sound is the steady knocking of the boat's engine- and then there are the noises coming from land. Much like those at the beginning, the noises are indecipherable. Are they animal? Human? We know something is there, waiting for the Bellmers, and again: Vinyan is nothing but dread.

Though Béart and Sewell turn in riveting performances (Béart, in particular, perfectly embodies a haunted, hollow desperation), I would have liked to know more about Jeanne and Paul. Despite all they go through, despite their obvious grief, there's an odd disconnect there which prevents their journey from becoming one I could truly care about. Grief, particularly that of a mother, is a time-tested trope in horror films, from Don't Look Now to The Haunting of Julia to...hell, Friday the 13th. We certainly feel for the couple and we know they're in pain, but we only get glimpses of what their lives have become without Joshua. We know virtually nothing of what their lives were like before he was gone.

There's an ambiguity to the film that I enjoyed- how much of this is really happening? Are the Bellmers drawn to the island by a supernatural being or force? This line, after all, can't simply be happenstance:
When someone dies a horrible death, their spirit becomes confused and angry. It becomes...Vinyan.
Are there spirits loose in the jungle, or are we simply witnessing a grieving mother's dehydration-fueled descent into madness? Is Joshua still alive, a lost boy victim to both nature and human traffickers? Again, Du Welz ignores the rules. If concrete answers are your thing, you may find yourself across that line in the sand from me. Don't worry, though- we can still be friends.