Vinyan (2008)

Vinyan first published by Little White Lies

The films of Fabrice Du Welz occupy an uneasy borderline that makes them difficult to pin down (and no doubt even more difficult to market). His striking 2004 debut Calvaire, for example, used elements familiar from Deliverance-style survival horror to create a mythic meditation on performance and passion. His next film, Vinyan, turns a bare-bones ghost story into a reverie on grief, anguish and madness.

Like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage, or Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, Du Welz’s film follows a married couple struggling to come to terms with the loss of a child. But instead of retreating to Venice, lighthouse or woodland cabin to face their recriminatory guilt and fear, Jeanne and Paul Belhmer (Emmanuelle Béart, Rufus Sewell) search for their son Joshua, who vanished in the 2005 tsunami, across the Thai border in Burma.

They journey into a Conradian jungle where they themselves – and we, too – become lost (perhaps forever) to delusion and despair.

From its opening sequence of bubbles and blood right through to the ritualised savagery of its close, Vinyan remains an abstract and ambiguous entity. Certainly the world in which it is set is a very real South East Asia where lives can be swept away in an instant, and where children are often neglected, exploited or commodified.

But it is also a psychological landscape, where dreams and visions mingle with the waking experience, and where everything – whether urban demimondes or mist-shrouded rivers or the deepest, darkest jungle – takes on a disorienting quality that reflects the main characters’ crumbling state of mind.

Thaksin Gao (Petch Osathanugrah), the well-mannered Triad leader who serves as cross-border guide to the grieving couple, tells Jeanne that ‘vinyan’ is a local word for the confused, angry spirit of someone who has died a bad death and “does not know where to go or what to do.”

By the end, it will not be clear whether the title refers to Joshua, his parents, or any of the other lost souls encountered on their journey – but Du Welz has crafted an eerie, intense odyssey of marital and mental breakdown, aided by the moodily desaturated cinematography of Benoît Debie, and some extraordinarily haunting sound design.

Without resorting to cheap frights or bogeymen, Vinyan locates its horror in the human heart of darkness.

Antipation: Du Welz’s debut, Calvaire, was a Christmas cracker.

Enjoyment: An intense and moody exercise in uncanny ambiguity.

In Retrospect: It’s Antichrist, only more artfully restrained (and in Burma).

© Anton Bitel