Vinyan (2008)
‘Some things are better left not found’

The intertextual nods to psychological thrillers, horrors and survival adventures in Vinyan, Fabrice du Welz’s second feature which charts the metaphorical retreat of a grieving couple into the jungle, serve as a reminder of his relative inexperience at making his point primarily through images. Specifically, the works of Hook (Lord of the Flies), Roeg (Don’t Look Now), Cronenberg (The Brood), Lynch (The Lost Highway), Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and of Uruguayan filmmaker Chicho Ibáñez Serrador (Death is Child’s Play) provide du Welz with more than he can chew, most in their own way jungle survivalist tales of a sort, some so painstakingly detailed and expertly crafted on a cinematographic level that the successful tend to operate outside language. The way in which Vinyan traces the division of its traumatised couple, the Belhmers, is a bit rotten, the outcome a pale but not uninvolving conception of fantasy in which emotional connection and intimacy is sacrificed for the power and force of mimicry. The cluttering of diegetic space, the muddying of dialogue on the soundtrack, the consuming threat posed by the communal world and the iconography of this world matters more. It’s disappointing, because in interview du Welz is a good guy, self-aware too (a rare thing, even rarer to hear that he’s learning from mistakes), the sometimes contradictory public responses to his first two films (this and Calvaire) enough to stir serious reflection on his part; he too displays an obvious affection for Thai society, and in this film’s early Phuket street scenes, fashionably composed in a tight frame and bumping shoulder to shoulder with hookers, vendors, traffickers and vagrants all, we glimpse sometimes the objects of his fascination. It’s a shame, then, that he denies repeating here the stylistic choices of others, most blatantly Coppola, when the less conventional film techniques he employs appear conceived for that very purpose. None of this undercuts importantly his themes, which are well worth exploring in detail and I’ll get to below, but the cumulative impact of this repetition, with little or no variation in tone and light, weakens the quality, and ultimately the weight, of our interest.

At a fundraiser evening, footage of children in a Burmese jungle is played to aid workers Jeanne (Emmanuelle Béart) and Paul (Rufus Sewell), a grieving middle-class white couple who lost their preadolescent son, Joshua, to the Asian tsunami disaster of 2004. The blurry image of a boy, his back turned to camera, the colour of his shirt calling to mind for us the red-caped figure of Don’t Look Now but for Jeanne the distinctive brand of her son’s favourite football team, serves as an inducement to action. Although the quality of the magnified image is poor and the isolated figure an anonymous jumble of pixels, for Jeanne and Jeanne alone the video has some authority. I suspect that not even she is convinced finally of its credibility (the video attests to the existence of a boy, not her boy), but it is nonetheless her belief that Joshua (wherever he may be) needs her, a belief premised upon seeing this stranger in the video which in some sense does contain the soul of her missing son. She may or may not relinquish finally her belief in the material existence of Joshua, the mystery is to a point irrelevant, but what’s far more intriguing is her compulsion to inhabit, to enter into and thus occupy, presumably for the sake of occupying, the timeless physical space pictured in the video. With this in mind, her quest to track down the boy which structures the film feels like a ritual of initiation motivated by an immutable sense of personal, i.e., parental (and since it is of importance, maternal), duty.

Jeanne Bellmer (Emmanuelle Béart) in Fabrice du Welz’s Vinyan (2008)

Alternatively Paul, who sees what his wife sees, is just another supportive husband, sceptical from a rationalist’s perspective but always trying to give her what she wants, his conviction that in time Jeanne will accept the thanklessness of their impossible mission penetrating deeper into Burmese territory and turn back. It’s with Paul’s story that the film’s passing acquaintance with Roeg’s aforementioned begins to cement, the strictures which he has placed around such metaphysical concepts as the supernatural and the invisible start to loosen, and the connection between his desire and Jeanne’s own all but severed completely. As a vulnerable man, susceptible to the fraud of human traffickers and moreover voiceless in their company, we sense that Paul will reinforce somehow his position come the resolution—the tragedy which split the family so potent to effect some kind of transformation in his character—but unlike Jeanne, he seems to get by in reality suffering less torment, almost certainly owing to less responsibility. He’s not welcome in the fantasy, and for knowing this he is constantly ill at ease.

In summary, their quest to track down the boy is on the one hand an escape into fantasy, a fantasy which it appears is motivated by the anguish of Jeanne’s lonely reality; on the other, it is a ritual of initiation motivated by maternal duty. Though both hypothetical scenarios support a metaphorical reading of the film, only the former scenario (the flight into fantasy) honours a redemptive reconciliation with the memory of Joshua; the latter scenario (in which the fantasy becomes a rites of passage and both parents learn to tolerate the loss) moves away from Joshua, towards something confounding and altogether uncomfortable. I favoured the latter reading, but it’s of course entirely reasonable to interpret Vinyan in accordance with the former. For example, in some instances the “cinematic” quest for reconciliation with lost loves, with lost children, results in what McGowan termed in response to the films of Lynch a “deadlock,” an alternative reality into which one necessarily withdraws in order to escape the tormenting cause of desire (and yet at the same time finally realising that desire). This is why the Belhmers can only, ideally, connect with the memory of their boy, and not the boy himself—so for this reason, I take it for granted that Joshua is dead. The deadlock which Jeanne and Paul, both figuratively “in the dark” about the fate of their son, encounter returns them to their original starting positions—he, as the guilty party, and she as the primary caretaker. In fact, the privileging of her initiation rite over the film’s climax goes some way towards supporting this. The denouement depicts the mother’s apparent socialisation into a posse of feral children who swarm around her in great number; Paul, however, for committing the cardinal sin of leaving their son apparently unsupervised at the time of the disaster, is in the scene shunted from view entirely, his body yanked to the ground where it’s beaten and stamped on, his intestines routinely stripped and pored over by the same cannibalistic children. Here, then, it appears that Jeanne finds salvation in the demented illusion created by and for herself, a fantasy wherein the failed father is indicted for denying (until it’s too late) his crime and the mother deserving of her privileged role pictures herself as a madonna; this hopeful conceit is echoed in the sunlit beauty of Vinyan’s final image, an affectionate portrait of Jeanne, now a giggling mom again, surrounded and tickled by dozens and dozens of worshipping children.

Affectionate portrait: Jeanne Bellmer (Emmanuelle Béart) in Vinyan (2008)

This is all good stuff from a theoretical perspective and it’s helpful that du Welz leaves any uncertainties we have as audiences hanging, but this isn’t a sympathetic portrait, the essences of the mood and feeling I sense beyond du Welz's control. The final shot provides a fine example: seen as a purging of guilt and sorrow, it’s the moment at which Jeanne’s soul rises from the torment and into the light, the infants guiding her away from Vinyan and towards peace. But I’m unconvinced. If Jeanne’s successful withdrawal into fantasy requires that she find salvation in the illusion, then the image of salvation which it finally produces is imperfect. For that reason, it’s difficult to believe in her salvation. Though consistent with our general understanding of fantasy (Jeanne’s reemergence as a madonna figure offers respite from the pain of her desire to see Joshua again), the provocative final image of the film feels far from redemptive or cathartic. Or even pleasant. Far better to begin from a point at which we can all agree that the mother gives up on herself, and then move on to further details. Thus her stay of execution, which is generous against anything afforded her husband, is precisely that, and is therefore less likely to be a spiritual reprieve or second birth. As to the question of whether or not she can mother successfully again, the film rests on a harsher note. Mother no more, not even a bona fide surrogate, she becomes a material plaything, poked, prodded, fondled, pushed and pulled. I guess this is intended as it was damn well conceived, to be wholly innocent that is (if a little uncomfortable to witness), but it poses implicitly the question “what becomes of Jeanne outside the fantasy?” The positive resolution that occurs within the metaphor obscures something more hopeless and psychologically troubled occurring outside it. Rather than embrace the supernatural nature of the culture and draw from its Buddhist code in the hope of achieving spiritual rejuvenation, she, I suspect, surrenders to its darker underbelly beyond the fantasy.

18 September, 2010


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