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.