Finding Ophelia

Finding Ophelia (2021)

The title Finding Ophelia might suggest something along the lines of Al Pacino’s Looking For Richard (1996), in which the Academy/Tony-award-winning actor seeks the relevance and resonance of his latest Shakespearean rôle. Yet while Stephen Rutterford’s film is also a feature debut, and certainly evokes Shakespeare (among other things), Finding Ophelia is no documentary, but rather a sustained, disorienting dreamscape. After abstract images of waves and water, digitally altered into trippy kaleidoscopes, introduce the film’s oneiric atmosphere, our red-lit African-American protagonist (Jimmy Levar) opens his tearing eye (that tear a recurrent motif) and wakes up. Yet the female voiceover that accompanies him as he ventures out into the New York night quotes from Edgar Allen Poe’s A Dream Within A Dream, implying that our hero may still be asleep. It is an impression immediately confirmed both by the jarringly stylised way in which his progress through the streets has been lit and cut, and the surrealism of the encounters that he has. Meanwhile his very name, William Edgar, combines the forenames of Shakespeare and Poe.

As he drifts through his days and nights, William experiences blackouts and hallucinations, and is so disengaged from real life that he brushes aside the pile of bills accumulating at his door, barely even registers when his girlfriend dumps him and ignores the regular, increasingly alarmed calls from his boss Mike (voiced by Ben Runyan) – calls which are attempts to summon William back to earth. Prescribed powerful meds by psychiatrist Dr Ali Hope (Natalie Blessing) which he is liberally mixing with booze, our woozy hero is on a quest for Ophelia (Christina Chu), literally his ‘dream girl’ since he sees her in strange nightmarish visions. Following a series of deeply irrational clues – insistent symbols, repeating words, quotes from Hamlet, the messages of a talking pig, photos secreted in his own vomit William sets off after this ethereal young woman (with her butterfly tattoo), even as she appears to him, waving from an opposite shore like the ghost in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) or floating in water like Shakespeare’s Ophelia. William’s obsessive pursuit will see him gradually lose everything, as he tries to break through and complete his connection with Ophelia on the ‘other side’ of sleep.

William Edgar (Jimmy Levar) and his ‘dream girl’ Ophelia (Christina Chu)

Finding Ophelia is all at once a mystery romance, a ghost story and a lysergic chase movie. Underlying William’s uncanny, incomplete odyssey, there is a groping attempt to find someone else that is really an introspective journey of self-discovery (“Look inside,” as the pig says to William), reminiscent of – and arguably decoded by – the somnambulic psychedelia of Anthony Scott Burns’ Come True (2020). At one point there is even a clear allusion to the chicken dinner scene in Eraserhead (1977), as a marker both of the film’s allegiances to the unnerving and the outré, and of its preoccupation (just like Lynch’s feature) with the fluid boundaries between wakefulness and sleep, life and death – and finally there is just the slightest gesture towards the kind of cultural and corporeal appropriations depicted in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017).

Full of trippy visuals and glitchily edited to an electronic score, this is a beautifully shot arthouse experiment, at times playing like an extended music video, and perhaps best appreciated while under the influence of something or other. It is a strange, looping affair, low on dialogue, soporific even, despite all the mannered filmmaking tics, and it may just send the viewer off to sleep, perchance to dream.

strap: Stephen Rutterford’s dream within a dream is all at once mystery romance, ghost story and lysergic chase movie

© Anton Bitel