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Foreign Objects: Vinyan (France)

When someone dies a horrible death, their spirit becomes confused and angry. It becomes…Vinyan. Perhaps coincidentally, the same thing happens to viewers of this film…
By  · Published on May 6th, 2009

Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport and get your shots, because this week we’re heading to…

France!  By way of Thailand!

When is a horror film not a horror film?  And what exactly constitutes horror in the first place?  I don’t know exactly, but I do know this.  Horror should unsettle the viewer.  It should disturb you visually or emotionally.  It should unnerve you and if possible make you question the darkness as well as the light around you.  What it should not do is confuse, frustrate, and bore the viewer to the point they wish they had spent the last ninety minutes investigating their navel instead of watching the film. Vinyan is being labeled and marketed as a horror film, but while it hints at horrors both visceral and emotional it fails to follow through on either front.  Instead the viewer is left with a beautiful and strange “if only” of a movie that could have been so much more than it is.

Paul and Janet Belhmer live and work in Thailand, but attempts at a normal life can’t hide the fact that they’re still mourning the loss of their son Joshua to a massive tsunami six months prior.  The couple witness a video of orphaned children in Burma and Janet (Emmanuelle Beart) becomes immediately convinced that her son is visible among the images.  Paul (Rufus Sewell) isn’t so sure but feels compelled to support his wife so they hire a Triad-connected pimp to ferry them into Burma in search of Joshua.  The trip becomes an exercise in futility as they soon realize their wallets and emotions are being taken advantage of… but extortion quickly becomes the least of their worries.  Madness takes over as the couple and indeed the film itself descend into a peculiar and perverse heart of darkness where the literal becomes meaningless and perception becomes king.  Or queen…

The immediate story present in Vinyan is both powerful and promising… the loss of a child, the slim belief that he may still be alive, the terror of finding out the truth.  But it would be a mistake to enter into Vinyan expecting a traditional, linear horror movie instead of the visual and metaphorical nightmare that awaits.  Tangible events and people pass through the film, but the imagery and cinematography maintain a constant dreamlike state that calls much of the film into question.  The ambiguity fails as there’s just enough reality to negate the dream, and just enough uncertainty to negate the story.

The couple is told that when someone dies a horrible death their spirit can become angry, confused, and lost… they become Vinyan.  The implication is that their son may be one such spirit, but then nothing further is done with that information.  They come in contact with a tribe of lost boys deep in the jungle… are they Vinyan?  If so, why are they only boys?  They seem real enough as they callously taunt and tease a hungry Janet with a ball of rice.  The third world/first world symbolism is unavoidable here and elsewhere throughout the film but to what point?  Is the film solely a commentary and comparison on the differences between the “whites” and the natives?

Vinyan may waver dramatically, but it’s an incredibly proficient film on the technical side of things.  Beart and Sewell are both highly capable actors, and Beart does a fantastic job of playing crazy even if there is no progression from simple distraught mother to full blown bonkers… she’s clearly in need of help from frame one.  Sewell keeps up fairly well as the frustrated and exasperated husband trying his best to hold on to the only love he has left.

Director Fabrice Du Welz follows up his equally odd debut Calvaire, and like that earlier film he shows here a sharp preference for visuals and confusion over narrative and clarity.  Vinyan does look amazing though thanks in large part to cinematographer Benoîte Debie.  From the opening underwater scene filled with desperate air bubbles to the frenzied and dirty red light district to a beautiful ceremony involving candles floating above the river to the imposing otherworldly presence of the jungle itself, Debie presents images of beauty and darkness often in the same frame.  Two dolly shots in particular stand out as incredibly impressive for both their ingenuity and end results… one gliding through the jungle following a runner below and the second a single take towards, over, and down into a stone ruin deep in the jungle.

Vinyan is a dramatic failure, slow and plodding at times, with characters that never succeed in engaging the viewer.  It’s also a beautiful film with more than a few scenes that comment on the divide that separates the modern world from the third world and shows how life and loss can mean different things entirely.  But is it a horror film?

Vinyan is available on DVD from Sony Pictures.  Check out the trailer below.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.