By definition, cinema implants experiences in the minds of its viewers, so it follows that movies about characters burrowing into the subconscious of unwitting subjects naturally fit the medium. From "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" to "Inception," contemporary movies have embraced this loopy fantasy by illustrating the improbable journey in exciting, magical terms. "Vanishing Waves," the sophomore feature from Lithuanian director Kristina Buozyte, takes the opposite tact, depicting a tragic story of impossible love by hitting dark, elegiac notes without negating the inherent trippiness of the scenario. Both disturbingly surreal and hauntingly beautiful, "Vanishing Waves" finds that the human psyche is a severely haunted house.
Then again, the mind in question is significantly more haunted than most. While the doe-eyed Aurora (Jura Jutaie) lies dormant in a coma in the wake of a debilitating auto accident, a group of enigmatic scientists cluster around her, attempting to inject their conscious subject Lukas (Marius Jampolskis) into her mind by attaching diodes to his head and dunking him into a damp sensory deprivation chamber. As the scientists scrutinize 3D models on old-fashioned computer monitors, "Vanishing Waves" takes the focus off the precise meaning of their study and instead foregrounds the impact it has on the unsuspecting Lukas.
Unlike the slow-burn experimentation found under similar circumstances in "Altered States," the scenario in "Vanishing Waves" yields instant success, and a startled Lukas finds himself not only literally gazing into Aurora's mind's eye but cavorting with her in the nude and quickly falling for her erotic appeal. Each bonding session with Aurora ends with a rude awakening, as Lukas is pulled out of his dream state and peppered with questions from the doctors around him. Both startled and aware that he may have crossed a vaguely defined ethical boundary, Lukas keeps the details of his missions into Aurora's mind a secret — but we take the trip with him each time.
Little else happens in "Vanishing Waves," but Lukas' real life love affair suffers from the strain of his bizarre newfound attraction and as the researchers grow dubious about his motives, the stakes inch higher. In favor of prolonged exposition, "Vanishing Waves" frequently turns to a series of increasingly disorienting sequences depicting Lukas' encounters with Aurora. Although they exchange few words, their bond develops a profound dimension that Buozyte depicts with swirling camerawork and shadowy, inexplicable moments that take on an ominous edge as Lukas gets closer to Aurora's emotional core.
While he locks lips with her from their first encounter, as he gets further invested in her past, he discovers its creepier mysteries, at one point stumbling into a seething mass of nude bodies and getting trapped in a claustrophobic orgy of her own making. Although Lukas makes feeble attempts to fully comprehend the everything he sees, he knows that he has started to care and worry about her disturbed state. Jampolskis' nuanced performance draws out Lukas' increasing shift from confused lab rat to committed lover eager to rescue his damsel in distress from the specter of death.
Oscillating between the austere laboratory setting and the murky palette of Aurora's mind, "Vanishing Waves" threatens to bludgeon its dreary scenario into a lifeless state by way of redundancies. But with their joint commitment rendered in expressionistic terms, Lukas' investment in his attempts to save Aurora from certain death take root in a consistent stream of feelings rendered with poetic imagery. Constantly drawn to his dream life with Aurora, Lukas wanders through each scene in a dazed state, and we're stuck their with him. Rarely does a final credits sequence arrive like such a harsh wakeup call.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Vanishing Waves" made its U.S. premiere over the weekend at Fantastic Fest, where it won a top jury prize. Artsploitation Films plans to release the movie early next year, but it will likely struggle to find an audience in North America due to its grim, arty sci-fi mold. It stands a good chance of garnering further acclaim on the festival circuit.