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VIOLET (2014) review

May 21, 2017

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written by: Bas Devos
produced by: Thomas Leyers
directed by: Bas Devos
rated: unrated
runtime: 85 min.
U.S. release date: May 19, 2017 (limited)

 

When we read or hear about a fatal death in a shopping mall, be it a shooting or stabbing, we may hear about who the shooter(s) or victim(s) wrre, but rarely do we learn anything about the witnesses. There may be a quote or a quick TV blurb from a witness, but that’s it. We may even imagine what it would’ve been like if we were there, but we hardly ever think about the people who were there, much less whatever friend or family member was with whoever was killed. What’s their story and how were they affected by what they saw? That’s what the Dutch-Belgian drama “Violet”, the feature-length directorial debut from writer Bas Devos, is trying to uncover in its surreal, dreamlike manner, as it follows the teenage witness affected by such tragedy. 

16-year-old Jesse (Cesar De Sutter) is the only witness to an attack and fatal stabbing of his friend Jonas at a shopping mall in . From what we can tell, the two attackers do not confront or acknowledge Jesse, nor does he engage or pursue the attackers. He understandably freezes and backs away into a corridor.  We see all of this go down in another room, from a wall of mall security monitors. We are watching from afar and yet feel as removed and helpless as Jesse does. It’s an interesting approach to start off with, drawing viewers in as well as excluding them from the action of the event.

 

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We then see an interior mall shot of the scene of the murder, which is now being taped off by the police with officers photographing, taping off and tagging the area. Usually in a film covering such an occurrence, we’d start to see an investigation begin and news coverage and maybe some community commentary. “Violet” will eventually bring Jesse back to this spot, but most of the film will be spent following the young man as he grapples with the aftermath of what he witnessed.

There are some scenes involving his murdered friend’s mother as well, but most of the film follows Jesse and his interactions with his family and the friends in his BMX crew, all of whom grapple (internally and externally) with what to say and how to behave around Jesse. Jesse’s parents (Mira Helmer and Raf Walschaerts) do their best to be available for, offered needed space while trying to be patient with their child’s need for space, remaining desperate to connect with him, who’s undergoing a seismic change in his life without even knowing it.

Understandably, much of the film is silent, which is fitting considering it’s essentially a character study that touches on coping and moving forward after such a senseless trauma, providing no real answers for anyone involved. Some people in Jesse’s life react destructively, some even blame him for what happened, but we also see Jesse develop an unexpected relationship with the victim’s parents (Koen De Sutter and Fania Sorel). Perhaps statistically it’s not a relationship that’s totally unexpected in real life, it’s just that we rarely see such a development included in a screenplay with this subject matter.

 

 

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What’s most memorable about “Violet” is the film’s distinctive aesthetic choice. Devos and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis used both digital and 16mm in Academy ratio (known as 1.37:1, an aspect ratio of a frame of 35mm film when used with 4-perf pulldown, the standard film aspect ratio in 1932 – think “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Ida”) which makes for a more photographic cinematic experience. The images constructed are deliberate compositions that meld together as a navigation of loss, grief and the tumultuous emotions for both youth and adults.

“Violet” presents authentic complexities, observing emotions during quiet encounters, using long takes and static shots, creating numbness that manifests itself as stillness. It’s a film that will have you thinking about individuals like Jesse, who have their teen years suddenly disrupted by a cold-blooded criminal act.  It handles the parents involved with care, void of overacting or melodrama, stunned by death yet forced to deal with required tasks such as the claiming of a dead body or offering comfort to those left behind. Devos handles the interaction between Jess and his biker pals with a natural purity, immersing viewers in authentic adolescent behavior and mischief, reminding us how feelings of grief are often suppressed or ignored altogether. “Violet” touches on understandable confusion throughout – just as we often don’t know what to say to someone who has a terminal illness, it’s hard to determine what to say to someone who’s witnessed a murder.

If you had to compare “Violet” with other films, there are certain Gus Van Sant pictures that come to mind, thanks to the fine atmosphere that Devos establishes. The director is gifted at offering a subdued, outburst-free concept of mourning that earns contemplative and reflective moments that turn out to be both warm and cold. However challenging the subject matter may be, overwhelming for some, “Violet” is nevertheless a surreal and meditative experience that marks the announcement of a fascinating filmmaker.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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