Thursday, August 26, 2010


When Fabrice du Welz’s ‘Vinyan’ was released in the UK about a year ago, it was marketed as a horror movie. I read a lot of negative reviews: indifferent performances, unsympathetic characters, a meandering first hour, an abrupt lurch into brutality during the final stretches, a befuddling ending.

Except for the befuddling ending part, those exact criticisms could be applied to ‘Wolf Creek’ – and that 90% dull and 10% tense and grimly nasty little number had garnered appreciative reviews and done pretty well at the box office.

So when ‘Vinyan’ aired on Film Four a couple of nights ago, I settled down with a large glass of red and minimal expectations. Two hours later, in the early hours of the morning with Mrs Agitation soundly asleep and every tiny sound from next door or out on the street pricking the hairs on the back of my neck, I switched the bedside light off and drew the covers over me, thoroughly creeped out.

‘Vinyan’ isn’t a perfect film, and I can see why its final shot leaves many people cold, but damned if it isn’t an underdog that’s worth banging the drum for. At its best, ‘Vinyan’ achieves an atmosphere of eerie dread, a fog-like sense of something unwholesome that drifts through the very celluloid of the film. It also achieves a slow and hypnotically awful depiction of a character’s mind folding in on itself under the weight of grief.

The plot concerns aid workers Paul and Jeanne Bellmer (Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Beart), whose son was lost in a tsunami six months before the film opens. At a fundraiser for a project to assist a village of abandoned children in Burma, their host shows some grainy footage of the village in question and describes how the only way into the region was to pay for the services of a Triad boss, Thaksin Gao (Petch Osathanugrah), to escort him upriver. Seemingly apropos of nothing, Jeanne flips out. She becomes convinced that one of the children in the footage, out of focus and not even facing the camera, is her missing son.

During the taxi ride home, Paul is sceptical and tries to reason with her. But Jeanne’s is in the grip of a fully-formed obsession and plunges into the criminal underworld to locate Gao. Paul, reluctantly and with increasing frustration, follows. Paying Gao an absurd amount, they set out on a journey that comes across as ‘Heart of Darkness’ by way of ‘Don’t Look Now’ with an ending that Ruggero Deodato is probably still kicking himself for not coming up with.

The pivotal scene synthesizes the film’s themes of loss, grief and desperation in a moment of visual poetry and unexpected calm (much of ‘Vinyan’, particularly in dealing with Paul and Jeanne’s fractured relationship, is pitched at a borderline hysterical level): on a moonlit beach, Gao and some of his colleagues release lanterns to into the sky, offerings to those who have died badly, whose souls cannot make the transition to the next world. They are called vinyan, he tells Jeanne: tormented and angry ghosts. Gao asks her to release a lantern. She replies that she doesn’t need to: her son is not dead; she’s convinced of it. Gao shakes his head. “For me,” he says. Fragile, paper-thin lanterns, ablaze with light, fill the sky above them, reflections dotting the ink-black water as they drift ever higher.

This introduces an enigma that, for me, defines the film. Whose troubled and malicious spirit does the title refer to? Is it Paul and Jeanne’s son? Or, allowing for Gao’s intimation that one’s spirit can be vinyan whilst one is still alive – perhaps in anticipation of a bad end (or, as is evident in Jeanne’s withdrawn and unhinged behaviour, because of an agitation of the mind) – does it refer to Paul or Jeanne?

Or is the children, feral and disturbing and making the chavs in ‘Eden Lake’ look like a bunch of girl scouts, they encounter in the depths of the jungle, their faces painted and their laughter devoid of anything human?

I said there were faults with the film, and there are. The foley work is ludicrously overdone, car engines, rainfall, footsteps and noises of the jungle overwhelming the soundtrack in scene after scene so that entire screeds of dialogue are rendered difficult to hear or, in some instances, completely incomprehensible. This especially doesn’t help when Beart’s accent is so heavy that some of her line-readings are murky (she seemed to demonstrate a better facility in English language dialogue in, of all things, ‘Mission: Impossible’). The film’s first third in particular functions at the histrionic level mentioned earlier, although this does contrast well with Jeanne’s withdrawal into the crumbling façade of her own mind in the latter scenes.

On the plus side, Benoit Debie’s cinematography is excellent, capturing a sense of alien-ness in the river and the landscape that’s almost Herzogian. The performances are good (Sewell, so often cast as a villain, proves that he can essay an everyman role very effectively) and in Osathanugrah’s case excellent – as the curiously sanguine gang boss, he steals every scene he’s in. Du Welz paces the film well, the feverish grip of Jeanne’s obsessive communicated with slam-bang intensity, dream sequences and hallucinations intermingling with the actuality of the Bellmers’ quest, a stomach-churning sense of something darkly inevitable waiting for them, and a jarring transition into grand guignol territory at the very end providing a not-entirely-unpredictable but still uncomfortable conclusion.

And then there’s that final shot.

‘Vinyan’ is a very good film that only just falls short of greatness. There seem to be a lot of people out there who didn’t like it. But maybe that provides the measure of the film: it gets under the skin, lodges itself in the back of the mind and leaves a nasty little imprint on the memory.


Samuel Wilson said...

My local library has this but I've read some of the same negative reviews that you have. Your review has made me more willing to give the film a try. Thanks.

Neil Fulwood said...

I don't usually check out reviews to the extent I did with 'Vinyan', but perversely the swathe of negative opinions out there (both on the net and by mainstream film critics) intrigued me enough to watch the TV broadcast recently. Maybe it was because I approached it with the expectation of something utterly dreadful and was rewarded with something quite well made (apart from the god-awful sound) and at least a little more thoughtful many films of its ilk, but I can't understand why there's so much antagony towards this film.

I'll be interested in hearing your comments once you seen it.

Aaron said...

Negative reviews, shmegative reviews. I love VINYAN, and it's easily an 8.5 or 9/10 for me. I'm glad you appreciated it also. I honestly don't understand why this film is mentioned alongside the other new wave of French horror films that have gotten a lot of buzz over the last few years like MARTYRS and INSIDE and FRONTIER(S) or what have you. It's not as brutal as any of those movies, but it's just as well done as those films (leaps and bounds better than FRONTIERS).

One of the highlights, for me, was Thaksin Gao. He was such a rotten character that when he met his fate, it made for such a satisfying experience. The fact that his character worked so well is due to whats-his-name's performance (sorry, too lazy to attempt to spell it right now). I'm glad you give him some props in your review. The cinematography was excellent, which you also brought up. Another highlight was Francois Des-Eudes' score for the film. He doesn't nearly get enough praise for his works as I feel he deserves. Definitely one of my favorite composers working today because of his unconventional style and use of sound/noise.

Aaron said...

"I honestly don't understand why this film is mentioned alongside the other new wave of French horror films that have gotten a lot of buzz over the last few years..."

*isn't mentioned


Neil Fulwood said...

Good call on the score, Aaron. That almost leisurely scene of the boat drifting along the river to village where the Bellmers have been told their son is ... the music, which is almost a low background hum, takes an innocuous moment and freights it with unease and uncertainty. One of the most subtle and creepily effective scores in recent years.