Packed with evocative visuals from start to end, 'Violet' is a stunning debut from director Bas Devos.
Violet (ND/NF Review)
I didn’t think it was possible to make a more enigmatic version of Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, but Bas Devos has gone and done exactly that with Violet. The film, Devos’ debut, is drop-dead gorgeous, mainly due to the incredible cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis. Shot on digital and 65mm in Academy ratio, Violet is an experience almost entirely about mood and aesthetics. It opens with the major event kicking off the narrative: 15-year-old Jesse (Cesar De Sutter) and his friend Jonas are hanging out in the mall when two men stab Jonas to death. Devos shoots the stabbing sequence from the perspective of the mall security guard, sitting in another room, watching the action unfold on different security cameras. It’s a distinctive opening sequence, getting to the heart of what Devos and Karakatsanis are trying to do.
The fact that the murder is seen through such a limited and removed point of view ends up putting the viewer in the same mindset as Jesse. While Jonas lies on the ground bleeding out, Jesse stands by him in complete shock. The rest of Violet uses its cinematography to evoke Jesse’s feelings as he tries to comprehend and grieve the loss of his friend. Very little is said throughout Violet, but Devos and Karakatsanis find plenty to talk about through their images. Jesse is only a teen, spending most of his days riding his BMX bike with friends or hanging out at the skate park if his mom will let him. He hasn’t even started figuring out what he’ll do with his life, and through one tragic action he’s suddenly faced with one of life’s cruel injustices. It’s a shattering experience for Jesse, and Devos understands how hard it is to encompass the resulting emotions through words.
The camera repeatedly pushes images into the abstract to show the new, unknown terrain Jesse explores in the wake of his friend’s murder. Shallow depth of field gets used repeatedly, turning everything around Jesse into a blur; frequent cut-aways to low quality digital video rendered images into streaks of pixelated colours and lights. The visuals and sound design produce some of the most evocative things I’ve seen this year, and their sensorial pleasures lead to several knockout moments. One in particular comes when Jesse spies on Jonas’ family arriving home after the funeral. The house is shrouded in complete darkness, with the indoor lights on the first floor providing the only source of illumination. It’s a surreal image, with each lit up room looking like it’s floating in a dark void, and it’s a perfect representation of Jonas’ family’s grief.
Not every moment in Violet provides that sort of perfect visual harmony with Devos’ subject matter, but it doesn’t have to. Each shot could stand out on its own as a striking short, but together they can have a surprisingly overwhelming effect. And while the aesthetics take precedence over almost everything else, little moments like Jesse watching television with his mother or meeting Jonas’ father lead to some surprisingly moving scenes. Violet establishes Devos as a filmmaker more interested in representing emotional states through showing rather than telling. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to pull off, but when it works—like when Jesse attends a metal concert, or the stunning long take that closes the film—it achieves something only great films can pull off, a representation of feelings that comes as close as possible to the way we experience them ourselves. Devos still has a way to go before solidifying himself as a great filmmaker, but Violet shows he’s certainly on the right path.