The Blue Rose had its European première on Sun 27th Aug at FrightFest
A woman (Jordyn Denning) in a black lace basque and a blue neck ruff steps onto a small yellow-lit stage, and kneels on the floor at its centre. With a bright blue painting behind her depicting a blue flower and a blue human head emerging from it, the woman scoops soil from a pile into a pot, plants a seed and irrigates it with blood-red water, causing a shoot immediately to rise from the pot and bloom into a blue rose. This prologue to writer/director George Baron’s feature debut instantiates its own title, without exactly explaining it. The sequence also offers a reflexive space whose staged reality echoes the painting hung in its background, so that here life, or at least this film’s surreal version of it, is made to imitate art. Not only is this a narrative with, at its centre, an artist whose imagination has transformed and distorted the world around her, but a credit at the end of The Blue Rose describes the film itself as “inspired by and featuring the artwork of Sophia Victoria Frizzell”.
Certainly Frizzell’s unsettling, macabre paintings, often seen hanging on walls in the background, serve to mirror and modulate what is happening in front of them, but there are obvious cinematic influences at work here too. The œuvre of David Lynch in particular casts its long shadow over the proceedings, right from the title blue rose, to the fetishised Fifties setting, to the weird theatres, the over-emphasised cherry pies and the piles of dirt, to the uncannny night clubs right out of Blue Velvet or Mulholland Dr., to the ‘Hollyweird’ dreamlands of Inland Empire, to the casting of Ray Wise (Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks) as a character who shares his surname, Vallens, with Blue Velvet‘s chanteuse, to the mention of a lost young woman named Audrey, to the crying, couple-splitting baby from Eraserhead. There is even an actual framed picture of Eraserhead’s Lady in the Radiator, placed alongside Frizzell’s original paintings. Baron is not hiding his immense debt to Lynch in constructing a Tinseltown twilight zone where a picket-fence suburban home, a swanky mansion, a hotel and a psychiatric hospital all merge into one, and parallel universes impose themselves so seamlessly that the viewer loses track of which is the master narrative and which the slave, and where exactly the dream ends and reality begins.
On the surface this is an LA neo noir, as young rookie detectives Lilly (Olivia Scott Welch) and Dalton (Baron himself) are assigned to investigate the fatal stabbing of Harold O’Malley (Manny Liotta) and the disappearance of his artist wife Sophie (Nikko Austen Smith). In a sense there is no mystery to this murder, as Sophie is shown brutally killing her husband with a knife near the beginning of the film – but that does not explain the far deeper mystery of Sophie’s earlier institutionalisation, or the dynamics of her relationship with her art-collecting socialite sister Norma Steele (Danielle Bisutti) and her servant Kiyo (Evee Bui), or with club singer cum sex worker Catherine Christianson (Glume Harlow), or with the enigmatic barman Lloyd (Logan Miller) who shares his name with the otherworldly bartender from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, or a manically grinning hotel concierge/hospital receptionist (Sophie Cooper), or with the sledge hammer-wielding thugs in bunny masks – let alone with the rose-planting woman seen on-stage in the film’s prologue.
Different viewers will reconstruct what is going on in different ways. Has Sophie slipped through a portal into a mirror world that represents Hollywood’s dark underside, and gradually dragged everyone in with her? Are various characters succumbing to the bath salts? Is Dalton merely imagining that he is a detective to escape the strains of his new family life, or trying to live up to his detective father’s expectations while struggling to keep his feminine side contained? Or are all these strange adventures just creative realisations of Sophie’s perverse canvases? Or are we witnessing the deranged hallucinations, both individual and collective, of an asylum’s inmates? Or is it all a pipe dream within a play within a painting? “Some art”, as Kiyo will state “isn’t meant to be understood, but appreciated” – and perhaps it is best just to take in all the brightly colour-coded visual weirdness of Arae Webner’s production design and the unnerving disorientation of Alexander Burke’s score, and to enjoy getting lost in this increasingly nightmarish netherworld.
When Dalton asks his partner Lilly why a homicide case has been assigned to them when they are “sort-of labelled as rookie detectives”, she replies, “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that any of the old geezers down at the station are any better than us.” These lines resonate in a messy – which is to say complicated and sophisticated – feature full of campish stylisations, multiplying stories, and sinuous intertexts, all of which have been conceived, scripted and helmed by a filmmaker who is just 18 years old (and who started shooting the film aged just 16). Baron may be a mere rookie, but he is also an ambitious, eccentric, audacious filmmaker, full of promise, with a long future ahead of him. The old geezers had better watch their backs.
strap: George Baron’s ‘rookie’ feature debut is a Fifties-set, overtly Lynchian LA nightmare noir where art seeds murder
© Anton Bitel