Ostensibly about the process of grief, Belgian director Bas Devos’ debut feature follows Jesse, a teenage BMX rider whose best friend Josef is stabbed to death in front of him in a suburban shopping mall. That’s the plot in its briefest form and the film actually doesn’t build too much on that throughout. It’s a minimalist feature that often seems more artistic exercise than cinematic storytelling, perhaps in the best possible sense of that phrase. We watch Jesse’s gradual social isolation, partially self-imposed, and the solace he finds in riding.
For Violet, comparisons to Gus van Sant come hard and fast, the premise and visual style seemingly a distant Belgian cousin of Paranoid Park, with dashes of Elephant and My Own Private Idaho thrown in for good measure.1 The way Devos and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis frame faces, whilst an echo of Christopher Doyle’s work on Paranoid Park, also calls to mind the work of Xavier Dolan, with intense and vibrant colours pushing out from the first close-up of Jesse.2 As an exploration of a young man’s grief relying on style moreso than narrative, though, Paul Wright’s underseen (and under-released) For Those in Peril also feels an appropriate companion piece.3
The framing is perhaps the film’s biggest strength. Shot in 4:3 and with a majority of shots locked-in, the film seems to want to explore the idea of moving through static spaces, whether it’s a bike soaring past some trees or a series of lights in faraway rooms illuminating the frame bit by bit. Karakatsanis also manages to artificially extend the frame in interesting scenes, a light in the doorway of the morgue shining out into the great darkness, now enveloping more than just the frame, or, in one of the most striking shots, where the camera slowly zooms into Jesse’s back as he stands in the forest watching other BMX riders – as the camera comes close to him the edges of the frame suddenly appear to be tree trunks on either side. Devos has played with framing before, shooting his 2009 short We Know in 1:1 (also with Karakatsanis as cinematographer), beating Canada’s wunderkind to the punch by almost half a decade.4
It would be remiss not to mention the sound design of the film, which is silent or very quiet for long stretches, only to suddenly be punctuated with ambient noise – most notably in a long take as we follow a car on a major road, sounds of passing vehicles conveyed as a sudden roar of noise amidst placidity. This careful approach to atmosphere through sound also complements many of the more striking images. When we first see Jesse’s face in profile, awash in yellow light, the image is as powerful as the calm noise being made by his mother, off-screen, dabbing his face with a cloth and calmly telling him that the blood will be washed off his hands.
Perhaps as a result of its minimalist tendencies, the film doesn’t manage to engage on an emotional level necessary for many of its more intentionally heart-wrenching moments, though few they are. It works best when playing off of the numbness of grief – in the clinical and Haneke-esque shot of men clearing the dead flowers from Jonas’ shrine in the shopping centre or the brilliant Deafheaven concert sequence from which the film gets its title.5 There’s subtext with regards to the pervasiveness of screens and digital perspective that pops up throughout as well – a shocking video on a smartphone, a soothingly humourous television program off-screen, a bay of screens showing surveillance footage – which places the film in a modern context but does so it a mostly subtle way.
Whilst Violet might not be as emotionally powerful as intended, it is an engaging and striking visual and aural spectacle, crafted with precision and care and featuring some of the best cinematography of any film this year.
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