Watch out for Bas Devos, people. If his feature debut, “Violet,” is any indication, the Belgian director is going to be a major art-house name. Along with DP Nicolas Karakatsanis, for that matter. This is an exquisitely shot suburban tale of trauma, stretching the “show-don’t-tell” golden rule of filmmaking to the furthest reaches. In fact, before advocates of sensational shot composition and meticulous camera control choke on too many superlatives here, it’s worth noting that “Violet” might suffer from a too-much-of-a-good-thing syndrome when it comes its visually arresting qualities. The film almost looks too good for the story it tells, which is spread noticeably thin over its succinct 90-minute run time. In any event, Devos and Karakatsanis need to be on everybody’s radar because “Violet” is a shoo-in candidate for one of the best looking films of 2015.
After a few blips of digitized violet light, the film ever-so-slowly zooms away from a developing scene in a shopping mall. Jesse (a very timid and subtly expressive Cesar De Sutter) hangs out with his friend, Jonas (Enrique De Roeck), minding their own business until a couple of older boys show up. Without the support of dialogue or sound, we witness a crime scene through three surveillance angles, with the blank fourth screen brilliantly exploited to reflect a bored security guard leaving his post. Jonas is unexpectedly stabbed while Jesse freezes up, seemingly intimidated by the other attacker. The assailants run off, and the film makes its first of few cuts to reveal the paralyzed Jesse, unsure of what just occurred, understanding on some level that something life-changing just happened, but not having the faintest idea of how to deal with it.
The rest of the film follows Jesse and his internal struggle to cope with this violent event. Interactions with his clique of BMX riders, moments of awkward tension with Jonas’ parents, confrontation with his own mother and father; minutes building upon minutes of incredibly loud silence. While the audience might struggle to connect with everything that’s on screen consistently, and get lost further still with Devos’ extra step of employing random, scrambled, superimposed footage to play with perception and expression, “Violet” is an artistic tour-de-force when it comes to visual storytelling. Shot in an edifying 4:3 aspect ratio, the film’s greatest strength lies in its fearless plunge to extrapolate the juiciest benefits from the moving image. The heart of the matter is laid out right at the onset, after which it’s all up to the film’s vibe, which Devos controls as if he was spawned from Michael Haneke and Gus Van Sant’s loins.
The film’s rhythm is hypnotic. Internal emotions, externalized by some kind of visual motif in every single frame, slowly build up to a ridiculously stunning final shot sure to leave audiences awestruck. There’s also something to be said (scratch that, it straight up invites film theorists to write essays) about the way the basic concept of motion is elevated to a higher plane of cinematic appreciation. 360 degree pans of BMX riders chatting away about jumps and tricks, smooth-surfaced skate parks angled to perfection, and (my personal favorite) one extra-smooth long take of the first time Jesse rides around his neighborhood with his buddies. The camera trails behind the group, as the lilting sound of the bike spokes add to the mesmerizing power of the scene, when suddenly one of the boys stops, changes direction, and starts riding toward the camera, the rest of them following suit. It’s hard to describe in words, but the use of focus and long take in this scene will give lovers of visual storytelling tingles. Another instance sees Jesse in the passenger seat of a moving car, his hand outside the window, cutting through the wind. Devos equates this image with his dad’s hand, outside the driver’s seat window, motionless, cigarette clutched between two fingers. As subtle, and visually expressive a statement on age and youth as I’ve ever seen.
“Violet” is as abstract in its plot and narrative as the title suggests, which might be a deal-breaker for a lot of people. But, make no mistake about it: this film is going to amass a long line up of loyal followers, who are going to be very vocal about the spectacular way Devos directs and Karakatsanis shoots this picture. And I’ll be right there with them. Would I have loved the film even more if the story had a bit more meat on it, and if the abstract images didn’t burst my bubble of comfort? Absolutely. But, I’d be blind if I didn’t appreciate and support Bas Devos’ fearlessness in telling his story with such haunting visual cues. And, it’s his feature debut. What a triumphant entrance. [B+]