The spirit of Gus Van Sant hangs over Violet, Belgian director Bas Devos’s feature debut.
The spirit of Gus Van Sant hangs over Violet, Belgian director Bas Devos’s feature debut. Its opening shot is a tour de force of aesthetically compounded isolation, a shot that pulls back from a hazy, primitive video image to view a bank of mall security monitors regarding some teens as they mill around. With the overseeing security guard glimpsed only in the reflections of the screens, all focus lies on the kids, their listless loitering seen from the distanced perspective of static security cameras. The images are so distanced, in fact, that when a group of teenagers meet suddenly and one is stabbed, it’s impossible to tell that something is even wrong until everyone breaks ranks and scatters as the boy crumples to the ground, clutching his stomach.
The stabbed child, Jonas, does not survive, and the remainder of the film follows the traumatized fallout experienced by his friend, Jesse (Cesar De Sutter), who witnessed the assault and stood by helplessly. Though one has no insight into the kind of boy Jesse was before the attack, the teenager gives the impression of a taciturn, withdrawn nature endemic to so many his age, a reserved attitude made inexorably worse by his mental scars. Those wounds are exacerbated by Jesse’s friends, who regularly air their insensitivity either in probing, impolite questions or outright condemnation for his failure to intervene. One friend even confronts Jesse while the two are biking out in the woods, calling him a coward and to banishing him from their circle.
Jesse embodies the Van Santian hero: a disaffected teen rendered all but mute by his overwhelming emotions, encased in a wiry frame with bad posture and hidden behind long, unkempt, blond hair. The boy seems to die a kind of death with his friend, often divorced from the world until it confronts him about the incident. Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis likewise recalls Harris Savides in his expert use of natural lighting blended with moments of evocative, haunting color, as in the early scene of Jesse whisked away from the scene of the crime as he stares out catatonically, the amber light of a backroom matching his hair as someone helps him wipe Jonas’s blood off of his hands. Elsewhere, Karakatsanis renders much in the cold light of the break of dawn, when the air is still wet with dew and the sun has only begun to creep over the horizon.
Words are employed sparingly in the film, leaving this cinematography and Devos’s roaming, lonely camera to speak to the pain reverberating through the characters. Jesse, finding little comfort in his own home, feels a greater kinship with Jonas’s mourning parents (Fania Sorel and Koen De Sutter), though he cannot bring himself to speak with them directly. Instead, he sits outside their house at night and watches them, leading to a spellbinding single-take sequence in which we see the family when they arrive home and begin turning on lights, creating small boxes of voyeuristic dioramas not unlike the security wall that opened the film. But instead of spying on the family, Jesse (and, by extension, the audience) manages to share in their grief, recognizing their mixture of perfunctory movement and pockets of confused stasis as the same feelings that hinder Jesse. It resembles a scene in Playtime, albeit with heartache substituting satire in its bracing image of dislocation and alienation. Later, an equally mesmerizing image involves Jesse riding his bicycle home while also towing Jonas’s bike, guiding the riderless vehicle along dimly-lit neighborhood streets.
The film’s best moments surge with this unspoken agony and desire to rebuild. Perhaps the most moving moment of connection is a nearly silent one, of Jonas’s dad making coffee for Jesse in the blurry background of a soft focus shot, stopping suddenly to walk into the room in the foreground to kiss Jesse on his cheek with fatherly affection, then turning and going back to his previous task. Deafheaven, whose song “Violet” gives the film its title, is “seen” playing a gig that enraptures Jesse in its noisy catharsis, though the camera ignores the band entirely to instead craft an unfocused shot of heads banging or even just swaying to the music, the only moment of the entire film in which Jesse appears to belong to a group. As with Van Sant movies, the film loses the plot when the camera glides a little too much and just starts to roam away from even the protagonist, but all in all this somber, muted cry for help is one of the stronger first features in some time.