Movie-making is a visual storytelling process, but that doesn’t mean the camera has to be continually shaking, roving, or zooming, a la Michael Bay. Sometimes it is the camera’s restraint and stillness that makes the impact. The opening scene of Violet, a 2014 Dutch drama just now hitting North American shores, is virtually sound free, so much so, I was afraid there was something wrong with the video or my speakers. Gradually moving in on a series of four CCTV security monitors, watching hallways in a mall, we see two teens loitering. There is no dialogue, despite the fact that we can see they are speaking to each other. On a different monitor, two people are slowly walking toward the first two. A scuffle ensues over an unknown provocation and ends with one of the friends being stabbed to death.
Just like that, we shift away from the security monitors onto a tight close-up of the surviving friend, Jesse’s, (Cesar De Sutter) staring face, and all the commotion caused by the abrupt violence. Jarring cuts such as this can be tonally at odds with what came beforehand. Not here, though. The eerie calm of the opening, including the stabbing, is replaced by much more chaos via a static shot and incredible sound design. Having the stabbing play out in a flashier style would undercut the power the sound has once it arrives. The BMX riding is filmed mostly by watching their shadows move, with soundscape layered to convey a sense of motion. All these quiet moments ensure that the few outbursts of sadness and anger that do occur are resonant and relatable. Jesse falls off his bike while practicing a stunt and starts tossing it around in frustration. Writer/ director, Bas Devos’s feature-length debut plays out quietly, but it packs an emotional wallop.
“…packs an emotional wallop… an ethereal ambiance.”
From a story standpoint, Jesse witnesses this horrific event and must decide to how to process it. Those around him grieve or see if they can help, including his BMX crew. That is the entirety of the plot. The sparse dialogue, I’d wager less than fifty lines altogether, is only spoken when necessary. When they do come, the lines feel natural and realistic. Certain characters talk over each other in an Altman-esque way, which gives it that extra kick of realism. The beautiful, evocative score certainly helps as well, and it provides everything an ethereal ambiance.
More than anything else, Violet is about the atmosphere. Nicolas Karakatsanis’s cinematography emphasizes Jesse’s emotional journey with extraordinary visual power. The camera hovers around the characters, giving the movie a voyeuristic vibe, which is almost haunting. A family is returning home at night, and the camera sits outside as various members go to separate rooms. A light is switched on whenever a new room is entered, so the viewer sees all this in silhouette. Each window is parallel to the others, giving a symmetrical look to the sequence. The result is simple, elegant, and entirely absorbing. A mundane task such as driving down the road is provided this sleek treatment, as well, as the camera tracks around the truck bed while Jesse and his friends talk.
“…emotional journey with extraordinary visual power.”
De Sutter has quite the task at hand as Jesse, as the role requires a very delicate balance between mellow and angsty. He handles it well and carries the brunt of the emotional core with ease. He is backed up by a stellar supporting cast including Koen De Sutter as Thomas, the dead friend’s dad. Koen De Sutter is empathetic and has natural charisma to spare. Playing Lars is Jeroen Van der Ven, he is quite caring, and his need to help his friend comes across as believable. Everyone does a great job and gives grounded, realistic portrayals.
Violet is an atmospheric drama that relies on its visuals to get the audience into the headspace of the main character. It is an arresting and intense watch that is wholly worth the experience. Devos has a long, distinguished career ahead of him if every movie he makes is this fantastic.
Violet (2014) Directed by Bas Devos. Written by Bas Devos. Starring Cesar De Sutter, Koen De Sutter, Mira Helmer, Brent Minne, Fania Sorel, Jeroen Van der Ven, Raf Walschaerts.