‘Vinyan’ marks a progression – and a divergence – from ‘A Wonderful Love’ and ‘Calvaire’. In the former, Miss Lara believes a dying male stripper to be the partner she’s never had and blithely acts out their life together, seemingly blind to the simple fact that the guy sitting on her sofa has a fork in his throat and no vital signs. In the latter, Bartel believes a stranded lounge singer to be the wife who left him years ago and blithely acts out their life together, seemingly blind to the simple fact that the guy sitting opposite him for Christmas dinner is just that: a guy. A dude, a bloke, a fella. Adam’s apple; ability to write his name in the snow; Y chromosome present and correct.
The deeper connection between these two works – the wellspring from which both films draw their humour and their horror – is the utter conviction Miss Lara and Bartel have that their perspective isn’t just the right one but the only one.
In ‘Vinyan’, bereaved aid workers Paul and Jeanne Bellmer (Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Beart) believe that a blurry figure glimpsed briefly in a snippet of handheld camcorder footage is their son, lost in a tsunami, and risk everything – financially, emotionally and in terms of their sanity – to find him. Already things differ from ‘A Wonderful Love’ and ‘Calvaire’: those films dealt with loneliness; ‘Vinyan’ deals with grief.
Paul and Jeanne are at a fundraiser for a project to assist a village of abandoned children in Burma, when they see the footage in question. Their host is casually describing 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, when Jeanne flips out. She is immediately convinced that one of the children, out of focus and not even facing the camera, is her son.
During the taxi ride home, Paul is sceptical and tries to reason with her. And here the second difference from du Welz’s previous works: a dissenter to the protagonist’s unshakeable convictions. A dissenter, yes; but a dissuader, no. Jeanne 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 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?
As I said in the original article, which I’ve pretty much repeated wholesale for the last few paragraphs, I still think there are minor flaws: the hamfisted foley work that ensures car engines, rainfall, footsteps and noises of the jungle overwhelm 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.
However, these things bothered me less second time around. I wonder, also, if the exaggerated foley work and the histrionic performances were a deliberate aesthetic choice on du Welz’s part. Whether he intended them to emphasize Paul and Jeanne’s disconnection from the world around them (be it the , ahem, civilized world at the start of the film or the festering jungle at the end).
Benoit Debie’s cinematography is excellent, capturing a sense of alien-ness in the river and the landscape that’s almost Herzogian. Sewell, so often cast as a villain, proves that he can essay an everyman role very effectively. Beart makes an unlikeable character memorable. And Osathanugrah’s gets a man-of-the-match award: 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’ 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.