THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS
I was a bit worried going in, because director Fabrice Du Welz’ last film, Calvaire (The Ordeal), was just so weird. Really weird. Weirdy weird. It was a French Deliverance by way of David Lynch. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to most folks. So going into a screening of this, I had no idea what to expect. And that really helps when you watch Vinyan.
It’s great that you only gradually realize the couple has lost their child in the tsunami during a vacation. The early sense of “what’s going on here?” is a key part of the unfolding dread. Was their son kidnapped? Misplaced? Simply drowned? That he was swept away in the 2004 tsunami – it might as well be capitalized, but note how almost no one ever calls it that in the movie – almost trivializes their situation. A quarter of a million people died in the Indian Ocean on that day. That this boy was one of them was simply a matter of a vacationing family in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s almost something Lovecraftian about how they’re faced with their own statistical insignificance, something us privileged First Worlders rarely have to deal with. We’re Important. We Matter. We are Sexy and Happy and Comfortable and Healthy. Our children are Special.
This is a subtle part of the movie, however, and the director lets it bubble up rather than hits us over the head with it. Note how the people on the beach have their own ceremony to deal with the deaths, which is where meaning of the title – a restless ghost that can’t find its way to the underworld and can’t leave life – is explained. Meanwhile, the Behlmers are stuck, unable to go back to their own lives, and unable to go forward in any meaningful way. They are the real vinyans, of course. Their voyage into the jungle mirrors Jeanne essentially going mad and Paul helplessly dragged along behind her.
The progression from the city into the jungle into a bombed-out village and then into the even more dangerous jungle and then into a community of ghosts is reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. And the riverboat is so very Heart of Darkness. In a way, this is one of those movies about characters who have to leave the city and enter the “wilderness” to discover themselves (Withnail and I, for another example, and Last Life in the Universe, also set in Thailand and even more gorgeous, courtesy of the talents of cinematographer Christopher Doyle). Perhaps a better parallel is characters who leave the city and are destroyed in the wilderness. There are definite similarities to this and Long Weekend, the weird 1978 Australian horror movie about a couple in the wilderness dealing with their own lost child.
Note how we first meet Jeanne Behlmer coming out of the sea, clean and sexy, but somehow uneasy. And note how she gradually sinks into mud and dirt, embracing and being embraced by the earth instead of the water. There’s a progression from drowning to burial. The final shot of her being coated in mud by the tiny hands of lost children is just amazing. Thank god for the French for letting us have visuals like this that might be wrongly interpreted as risque (a French writer and English director gave us Nicole Kidman and Cameron Bright in a bathtub together in a similarly taboo image in Birth). Compare this also to the ending of Calvaire, in which a man driven mad is reclaimed by the earth.
The similarities to Don’t Look Now are also obvious, right down to the child wearing red, the weird unsexy sex scene, the preoccupation with the exotic location, and even the “cathedral” where everything comes to a bloody ending. But here is no dwarf serial killer. Here are the ghosts (?) of lost children. These ghosts confront them with the reality that what’s happened to them is nothing exceptional. The commonness of their experience, of the death of their child, eventually destroys and swallows them.
I really really liked this. It’s a bit of a grenade movie, where you see it – and get creeped out – and it takes a while before it goes off, at which point you can’t stop thinking about it. I might be pushing my own interpretation, but in addition to just being a solid “descent into madness” movie, it did strike me as a message about the inability of the privileged to understand enormity in the world. I love how it was anchored in the 2004 tsunami. It was very much about that event without simply being about that event. I wish someone would do this with Katrina, which instead is a glorified extra in that stupid Denzel Washington time travel movie and a senseless role in the B-plot of the Benjamin Button movie.
Vinyan is gorgeous, shot by Benoit Debie, who also shot Irreversible for Gasper Noe. There were a couple of crane shots that were just awesome. At one point, as Jeanne is plunging through the woods, the camera follows along, but from above, looking down through foliage at her while she runs, driving home the point that she’s being swallowed by the jungle. And then the crane shot that reveals and then goes into the ruined temple at the end was pretty mind-blowing. I wonder what sort of Fitzcarraldo-like mechanism had to be rigged in the jungle to set that up.