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BERLIN — If Gus Van Sant had grown up in Flanders — hey, he’s got the right surname — he might have directed something like Violet, the first feature of writer-director and gifted visual stylist Bas Devos.
This striking debut film, which won the Berlin Film Festival’s Generation 14plus Grand Prix, evokes the often unspoken emotions of a long-limbed, flaxen-haired, BMX-riding 15-year-old after his best friend’s been randomly stabbed to death right under his eyes. The withdrawn protagonist needs to not only come to terms with his loss but also with the challenging attitudes of some of his peers, who blame him for not stepping in or wonder why he survived instead of his best buddy.
Emotionally specific despite relying mostly on images rather than dialog to tell its story, this evocative and atmospheric feature, which was shot on both 65mm and the digital Alexa by co-producer and ace cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (Bullhead), should appeal to upscale festival and arthouse audiences and might even score some niche theatrical action in other European territories.
Violet opens with the lethal stabbing inside a Brussels mall, though Devos wisely chooses to show the event not directly but from different angles on four CCTV monitors inside the room of a powerless security guard (visible in the reflections on the screens), adding an almost objective-feeling distance to what occurs in the mall corridors and underlining the random senselessness of the act. The rest of the film tries to counter this initial feeling, as the emotional fallout for the survivor of the attack, teenage boy Jesse (Cesar De Sutter), slowly but precisely comes into view.
Jesse’s parents (Mira Helmer, Raf Walschaerts) can’t really understand what their taciturn son is going through and there’s a sense that the withdrawn and clearly shell-shocked Jesse finds more solace in secretly observing the parents (Fania Sorel, Koen De Sutter) of his now dead buddy, Jonas, as if their very personal responses to their loss might offer the adolescent ideas on how he can deal with his own grief. A spectacular nighttime shot shows Jonas’s parents in their house as observed from the outside, with only the rooms on the first floor lit and the enormous black space above them of the other unlit floors symbolically suggesting the dark weight of mourning on their shoulders.
Though they do come to Jesse’s house and ask him to come and ride on their BMX bikes through their suburban neighborhood and in the nearby woods, the 15-year-old’s often standoffish and awkward peers aren’t of much help, neither understanding what their friend is going through nor how they could help him get over it (asking questions such as “Why was Jonas stabbed and not you?” certainly doesn’t help).
There’s a striking, practically wordless scene where one of the parents is in the kitchen, making coffee for Jesse, when he suddenly walks out, gives Jesse a tight hug and then goes back into the kitchen without saying a word. Equally evocative is the image of Jesse driving on his BMX bike, as seen from behind, while Jesse holds the handlebars of Jonas’s bike, which thus advances next to him. Shot at dusk, the empty bicycle slowly bleeds into the encroaching shadows, visually suggesting both how much Jesse misses his pal and how Jonas has disappeared into the dark.
World-class cinematographer Karakatsanis — who also shot upcoming U.S. films The Drop, with Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, and The Loft, with James Marsden and Wentworth Miller — and Devos constantly privilege images that convey situations and emotions without necessarily resorting to words. His cinematographic tour de force here is reminiscent, in spirit if not always directly in technique, of Christopher Doyle‘s work on Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, which similarly scrutinized the face of a teenage protagonist who suddenly finds himself faced with death and who is followed around by the camera wherever he goes in his search for answers and peace, mostly on his skateboard in Park and on his race bike here.
The viewer, at least initially, has to search the screen for meaning and figure out how the puzzle pieces fit together, a process not unlike what mourners go through when, after having experienced a great loss, they have to try and find some sense in a world that suddenly seems unrecognizable. The film’s boxy Academy ratio helps lend the proceedings a claustrophobic edge, as if the screen can’t contain the churning undercurrents of emotions, while the images in 65mm make the film look almost hyperrealistic at times, suggesting a heightened sensitivity to Jesse’s experience of his surroundings. Soundwork is also crucial in establishing the mood of the often-overcast Belgian summer against which the drama plays out, often substituting for dialog. The final image, an 8-minute sequence shot, is a wonder to behold and ends the film on a perfect and perfectly poetic note.
De Sutter, who could be spied as a kid actor in Fien Troch’s Someone Else’s Happiness from 2005, which similarly looked at suburban unease in Flanders, is the son of actors and a true professional despite his young age, suggesting layers of confusion, anger and, especially, loneliness with a simple look or gesture.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Generation 14plus)
Production companies: Minds Meet, Artemis Productions, Phanta Film, Mollywood
Cast: Cesar De Sutter, Raf Walschaerts, Mira Helmer, Koen De Sutter, Jeroen Vander Ven, Fania Sorel, Brent Minne
Writer-Director: Bas Devos
Producer: Tomas Leyers
Co-producers: Patrick Quinet, Petra Goedings, Nicolas Karakatsanis
Director of photography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Production designer: Jeff Otte
Costume designer: Hanneke Geurts
Editor: Dieter Diependaele
Sales: New Europe Film Sales
No rating, 82 minutes.
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