“Dies Irae” is a stunningly poetic and beautiful short film by Jean-Gabriel Périot, which has deservedly been screened at a large number of festivals and exhibitions. The film is constructed from thousands of still images, which blend into one another in very rapid succession. All of the images all show a road, path, or a central line of some kind which vanishes into the distance, and this pathway is always placed centrally, creating a very strong metaphor for the ever-changing journey of life. The soundtrack, a mix of world music, has a delicate beauty which lends a gracefulness to the film.
At first, the images are of empty paved roads, with their feeling of newness and possibility. These quickly turn into paths through the woods, building a sense of a mythic, private experience. A sequence of shots of long corridors inside houses and public buildings reminds us that every part of our lives can be thought of as a journey, not just when we are literally on the road. Next, we pass underground, through caves and tunnels.
Suddenly, we go from empty roads to roads filled with cars. Périot unifies the myriad images by always using shots in which there is a car directly ahead of us, in the same central spot. We become aware that our personal journey takes place in a world of people, each one on a journey. The music at this point features a multitude of overlapping voices. In a dramatic change of format, the camera pulls out of the plane at this point, and we see a rapid series of aerial shots of highway clover-leafs and interchanges, allowing us to see the true complexity of these intersecting pathways.
At the end, there is a long sequence of railroad tracks, leading, perhaps inevitably, to an oblique but horrifying image of certain death. These images are accompanied by a soulful women’s chorus. It is a strange and powerful ending, as surely death is the end of everyone’s journey, although we don’t all arrive there by train.
In “Dies Irae,” Jean-Gabriel Périot has tapped into a deep, central part of our human psyche: our linear sense of time. He has found an extremely simple visual structure which creates a mesmerizing and powerful metaphor for life. One feels borne along, helplessly, by this film, exactly as one is borne along by the passage of time, and with something of the same feeling of enchantment mixed with dread.