Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz has a singularly unusual, and frequently disturbing, view of humanity that translates into some truly unsettling films. Anyone who has seen his 2004 film Calvaire and walked away unscathed can attest to this. Sort of a Belgian Lars Von Trier, he’s an auteur with an astonishing eye for visual imagery, determined to use startling and frequently beautiful camerawork to show viewers a dark side of humanity that lies behind doors we would probably prefer remain closed.
2009’s Vinyan is no exception. Not as outright crazy nor jaw-droppingly shocking as Calvaire, it is nonetheless a harrowing journey that examines themes of parenthood, tribalism, and Eastern/Western dichotomies. Vinyan stars Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Béart as Paul and Jeanne Bellmer, a married couple living in Thailand, trying to deal with the disappearance of their son months ago. Paul is slowly coming to a grim acceptance, while Jeanne is becoming more and more obsessed with finding their missing child. A chance, grainy viewing of a video of impoverished children in Burma (aka Mayanmar) convinces her that Josh is alive, and she becomes determined to track him down, whatever the cost.
In order to do so, they make the ill-advised decision to pay off Thaksin Gao (Petch Osathanugrah), a Triad leader who specializes in human trafficking, to escort them to one of the surrounding islands based on his claiming to hear about a white child living there. Of course, the entire time you’re practically begging them not to go, as only folly can follow, and that much is certainly true. What is unexpected is where it comes from. Eventually, the three of them become stranded on an island that seems to be only populated by strange, mute children who dispassionately watch them from a distance, while Jeanne becomes more and more unhinged and Paul becomes more and more frustrated and angry.
What happens from there is for you to see for yourself, but it’s quite a ride. Vinyan is a fascinating, if imperfect, experience. It’s a gripping drama about two people who desperately want a return to normal life, and go to more and more abnormal lengths to get it. Paul knows that their quest will ultimately be fruitless, but goes along initially for fear of losing Jeanne. Jeanne is so frightfully psychologically fragile that she doesn’t see the dangers ahead of them, and with each successive failure, she becomes increasingly withdrawn and distant, and eventually almost completely dissociative. When they eventually end up on the island of creepy children, that dissociation, coupled with Paul’s agonizing attempts to engage her turning into desperate frustration, an irreversible rift develops between them. Jeanne becomes a near-ghost, a silent, stumbling creature who knows nothing but the need for her child, as Paul can only watch. Meanwhile, the strange childish watchers, feral and intimidating, become more and more ominous and darker ulterior motives are more and more apparent. And then things get really bad.
Vinyan is one of those films that is absolutely stunning, from start to finish. Even when it takes a turn for the horrific and gruesome, it’s done with such brilliant artistry that you’ll force yourself to watch. It features lush, gorgeous cinematography, yet when it eventually heads down darker paths, the transition is so gradual and seamless that I ended up equally captivated by the grotesque final minutes. It’s a slow build to its bizarre and disturbing climax, mirrored by Jeanne’s gradual descent into her fugue-like madness. The imagery that Du Welz so carefully chooses creates a series of bracing, disparate pictures of the different sides of humanity. A mother who is caring yet obsessed, children who are innocent and terrifying — it is a film of conflicting ideas and allegories.
While those themes and ideas are riveting to watch unfold, Vinyan ultimately ends up as another almost-great film. It’s got its share of plot holes, and the buildup to the eventual series of revelations and climaxes is at times brutally slow. Personally, I enjoyed that buildup — it’s aided by the stunning visuals and landscapes to keep you interested. Coupled with excellent acting by all three leads (with a particularly affecting and striking turn by Osathanugrah, a Thai pop/electro star, art gallery curator, and energy drink magnate. No, seriously), and a small but very good supporting turn by Julie Dreyfus (Kill Bill Vol.1, Inglourious Basterds), there was plenty to keep me occupied as I waited for the film’s creepy and lurid story to develop. But it’s not surprising that many found the first 60 minutes to be interminably dull.
Fabrice Du Welz has created a film that manages to be breathtakingly lovely, even when it’s being terrifying and downright awful, a feat that few film makers can achieve. He takes us on a trip through the raw, visceral underbelly of the human condition — obsession, love, fear, all wrapped around the most horrifying loss that parents can experience, and the denial and unfulfilled fury that accompanies it. It’s a film that has its share of problems, some subtle, some glaring, and characters at time make some maddeningly stupid decisions. But it’s done with such sumptuous visual flair and solid acting that you’ll end up engrossed regardless, even if you find yourself ultimately either baffled or annoyed by the end. It’s a perfect example of a great idea converted into a middling story, adapted into a flawed but nonetheless beautiful film.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.