Vesper (2022)

Vesper has its UK première at Grimmfest

The sowing of seeds, whether literal or metaphorical, is not just an investment in the future, but a gendered activity, strongly associated with men. For in agriculture it has traditionally been men who till – and sometimes even own – the land, spreading seeds across it for their yield. In the figured language of procreative sex, it is the man who is said to sow his seed, planting it in the woman so that it will take root and grow into the next generation. And in the patriarchal structures that dominate our society, it is through a strictly male line that power is ceded from father to son via the phallus that they share and the seed that emanates from it to keep the whole cycle going. If women have any part to play in these metaphors, it is as the ploughed field, the incubating vessel, the supine recipient and passive provider of continuity. Seeds and their sowing will also play an important part in Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper’s dystopian sci-fi Vesper (which they co-scripted with Brian Clark), but here there is more give and take between the genders, as the film’s homonymous heroine (Raffiella Chapman), androgynous in appearance and occupying an ambiguous space between child and adult, will find herself in charge of some very special seeds of her own making that might just be the key to humanity’s future.

In Vesper, seeds are a highly valued commodity. Viruses and organisms genetically engineered to fight off one ecological disaster have created another, wiping out edible plants, animals and large swathes of humans. The luckier folk left over reside in exclusive high-tech Citadels where they are served by cloned slaves called ‘Jugs’, and trade seeds that they have coded for single use to those beyond their walls, in exchange for certain desirable biological materials. These are an oligarchical ruling class, living in ivory towers which are glimpsed only once from a distance in the film. Those outside the Citadels are subsistence survivors farming and foraging as best they can in a hostile environment of mutant flora, while there are also drifters and bandits and a growing nomadic cult known as Pilgrims who silently salvage scrap metal and other junk for an unknown purpose, and whose ranks were suddenly joined one day by Vesper’s mother. 

Abandoned by her mother, Vesper hopes that her autodidact skills in biosynthetic manipulation will one day see her unlocking the altered code of the Citadel’s seeds and making them fertile again, and maybe even being admitted to work in the Citadel’s laboratories. “You don’t know the cost of dreams,” warns her father Darius (Richard Brake, in an unusually still performance), who once served as a soldier in a Citadel before a crippling injury led to his ejection with only an old service drone as his reward. Now, as he lies immobilised and speechless in bed, he can use that drone’s cameras to accompany Vesper on her outdoor adventures and talk to her through its electronic voicebox – one of many dream-like elements in the film, along with its tentacled plants and bioluminescent creatures, all of which have indeed come at a great cost. 

If this household, where daughter looks after father, offers an inversion of patriarchal norms, Darius’ brother Jonas (Eddie Marsan, in constantly menacing form) represents a more straightforwardly unreformed patriarch, running the nearby village with tyrannical economy, and assessing everything and everyone by the measure of personal profit and loss. To him, children like Vesper are mere commodities for him to own and exploit through force of will (and sometimes other kinds of force). When Camellia (Rosy McEwen) comes literally crash-landing into this fraught environment from the Citadel, there will be an uprising of the female and the servile, yielding new, more fertile and bounteous prospects. 

Vesper is named for the Latin word for ‘evening’, and sure enough the film will end with an image of the setting sun. Yet in this strange world, beautifully built and realised by the filmmakers, it is merely the old order that is going down, while we also bear witness to the eventual coming of a new dawn, intuitive, feminist, beneficent, and literally nourishing. It is a mystical note on which to end, if hardly more irrational than the late-capitalist dispensation that preceded it – and as humanity once more finds a symbiotic relationship with nature, life is revealed to be not so much receding as reseeding. 

Strap: Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper’s sci-fi plays out the self-destructive problems of late-capitalist patriarchy in a mutant dystopia

Vesper is in UK cinemas and on digital 21 October 

© Anton Bitel