Monday, 22 June 2009

Vinyan - Edinburgh International Film Festival review

Or Emmanuelle [Beart] and the Last Cannibals?

Horror films have never been that big in the Francophone world. One suspects that the reason, besides the competing discourse of the fantastique, is that they are seen as somewhat déclassé, not serious enough.

As such, Fabrice Du Welt’s previous genre entry Calvaire / The Ordeal was especially welcome for being an intelligent yet unpretentious all-out anti-fantastique horror film.

Sadly the director’s new venture, made in English with an eye on the larger marketplace, proves a disappointment. Maybe it’s mis-marketing, that it’s less a horror film than a character study and an exploration of loss, but if so it’s also a piece of marketing that drew me to see it with expectations that were not fulfilled.

The set-up is simple, and exploitative of real-world tragedy: In the 2004 Tsunami, aid-workers Jeanne and Paul Behlmer lost their son Joshua. Six months later at a fund-raising event Jeanne thinks she sees him in a video surreptitiously recorded across the Burmese border and convinces Paul that they should go find the child. He agrees to the expedition, less from hope than the prospect that failure will give his wife a sense of closure.

The problem is equally simple: Besides being a distaff version of Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now in the jungle rather than Venice, there’s really nowhere left for the narrative or the filmmakers to go once the expedition has gotten under way, except towards the inevitable.

Vinyan – a title which refers to lost souls or spirits – is dominated by two visual styles.

The first, seen in the pre-expedition scenes in Phuket, Thailand, is expressionistic-impressionistic man-over-nature stylisation, with obvious symbolic use of red in the manner of its ‘official’ model and the ‘unofficial’ likes of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. (Cinematographer Benoit Debie, who first came to prominence through his work for Argento-fan Gaspar Noe, later shot Argento’s The Card Player). It works.

The second, seen in the jungle scenes in Thailand and Burma, is naturalistic nature-overwhelming green inferno-ism, with minimal ability to use red, is more reminiscent of an Italian cannibal film. It also works, with greater qualifications.

But – that BIG but – there’s little connection nor segue between them. The characters are first in one environment then the other. What thus emerges is that the former was one which could be controlled by the filmmakers, whereas the latter is one that – an impressive Tenebre-style crane shot in a ruined temple possibly an exception, depending on the degree of post-processing trickery involved – could only be endured and responded to.

Beart and Sewell do their best, but their characters’ relationship lacks the sexual(ised) tension of their counterparts in Don’t Look Now, with more T&A from Beart (and / or Julie Dreyfus) also being needed if the film is to work qua (s)exploitation and more cannibal splatter if it to work as an exercise in gore.

The denouement, with its (s)mothering maternal monster and white goddess allusions to the likes of Mountain of the Cannibal God and Zombie Holocaust also proves more laughable than anything else. “The horror, the horror,” indeed...

In sum Vinyan is a film which, contra Calvaire, sees pretension override generic intelligence.

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