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DIRECTED BY: Fabrice du Welz
FEATURING: Emmanuelle Béart, , Petch Osathanugrah, Julie Dreyfus
PLOT: Months after their son was lost in the tsunami that devastated Phuket, Jeanne and Paul see a video that suggests the boy might be alive deep in the Burmese jungle. They undertake a perilous voyage into Myanmar to find him, but encounter increasing danger and incomprehensible conditions. As their guides continue to make demands and lead them deeper into unfamiliar territory, Paul becomes more and more skeptical, but Jeanne remains resolved to find her child.
- The title is a term defined within the film as a spirit that has died a horrible death, becoming confused and angry and haunting the living world. The word may have been invented for this movie.
- Du Welz’s second feature film, following Calvaire.
- Filmed on location in Thailand, where in 2004 the Boxing Day tsunami killed nearly 5,400 people, including 2,000 foreign tourists.
- Petch Osathanugrah passed away in August 2023 after living a remarkably varied life. Vinyan is his only credited acting role, but he was also a pop singer, art collector, president of Bangkok University, and CEO of the Osotspa beverage company, which manufactures the M-150 energy drink.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The final shot of the movie features despairing mother Jeanne giving herself over to the angry spirits of the region’s lost children, smiling deliriously while the white-painted boys caress and smear mud on her naked body. Immediately following a shocking burst of violence, the scene is a potent vision of both her psychological state and the primal landscape that has subsumed her.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Hungry old white people are funny; an ancient temple appears
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An unexpected blend of Don’t Look Now and Apocalypse Now, Vinyan builds horror out of unrelenting grief in a violently hostile world. The deeper we go into both the wilds of the Burmese coast and into the heroine’s desperation, the more disturbing the setting becomes, and the more inevitably tragic the characters’ fate.
Original trailer for Vinyan
COMMENTS: Vinyan begins as a horror story that has already concluded: a child has been lost in a terrible cataclysm. This would be tragedy enough, but the parents left behind are irrevocably shattered as a result. One spouse fights to move on through the pain, the other is assertively trapped in denial. This scenario could easily be the basis of any number of prestige dramas about this indescribable grief. (Think along the lines of Rabbit Hole or Ordinary People.) For Fabrice du Welz, however, this is the jumping-off point for a trek into a landscape of trepidation and doom.
The part of Hell is portrayed in Vinyan by the lawless jungles of Burma. (The location was a popular representation for a world gone mad; this same year, Sylvester Stallone waged war against the local oppressive forces in his fourth Rambo movie.) It’s a place of surreal cruelty. Torrential rain alternates with thick humidity. Kids happily throw stones at unburied corpses and laugh uncontrollably at the hunger of old people. Villages are largely abandoned, with only the barest of huts still standing. And people are willing to commit crimes of almost any nature to survive, beginning with theft and culminating in the casual sale of a malnourished boy.
Feeling protected by the purity of their quest (and by their wealth and culture), Jeanne and Paul have no idea what they are getting themselves into. We can reasonably question whether the film taps into offensive tropes by casting Southeast Asia as a demon-ridden hellhole swallowing up our first-world protagonists. On the other hand, the discovery of large numbers of boys (they are all boys) hiding amongst the trees—their faces painted white and their intentions ambiguously hostile—takes us far away from any world where logic applies.
The nature of the horror being depicted depends heavily upon your sympathies for the central couple. Jeanne, for example, steadfastly believes her son has survived from the moment we meet her. As she stares vacantly at the beautiful landscape from their tasteful lanai, Paul comes across a new pair of child-sized sneakers which Jeanne has purchased, because their son has certainly grown during his absence. It seems obvious that this footwear comes from the Hemingway Shoe Company, but Jeanne is incapable of even considering a world in which her son is dead. This is important to remember, because every decision she makes in the film is based on her certainty that her child is alive, and to believe otherwise is sheer insanity. In many respects, she doesn’t travel at all in this movie. The surreal place where she ends up is where she was emotionally all along.
By contrast, Paul fancies himself a pragmatist. He repeatedly argues with Jeanne about the need to move on, urging her to face facts. To his detriment, he seems to think that there will come a time when she will see the light and come to his side, and this leads him time and time again to give in to her requests, no matter how foolish or dangerous. Ironically, this effort to move past the tragedy is what ultimately destroys their relationship. “You let him go,” she tells Paul, ostensibly accusing him of failing to save their son in the moment, but really scorning him for thinking ahead to a life without their child. For him, acceptance is a necessary step; for her, it’s a mortal sin.
Vinyan is an unrelentingly grim film, following the familiar horror story beats of a couple drawn to go into the bad place because they just can’t think of any other way to go. But the true agent of chaos is grief, one so deep that it can never move past denial. Jeanne and Paul meet their fate in the jungles, but it’s arguably where they’ve been from the very beginning.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Every festival needs an authentic weirdie, an affront to cinematic decency, and Venice had Vinyan… It will play in the Toronto Film Festival’s Midnight Madness section, but at any time of day, this film is nuts.”–Richard Corliss, Time (festival screening)
“…an abstract and ambiguous entity… a psychological landscape, where dreams and visions mingle with the waking experience, and where everything – whether urban demimondes or mist-shrouded rivers or the deepest, darkest jungle – takes on a disorienting quality that reflects the main characters’ crumbling state of mind.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures
IMDB LINK: Vinyan (2008)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Pressbook – A .pdf version of the film’s press book
IndieLondon: Vinyan – Fabrice du Welz Interview – The director discusses his intentions and inspirations, including name-checking Don’t Look Now
The Independent: “Emmanuelle Béart – transgression vamp” – An interview with Béart describing her voyage to the role
Reuters: “Actress Beart, director defend new tsunami film” – A contemporaneous news report in which Béart and du Welz respond to criticisms that the movie exploits the Phuket disaster
Missionaries of the Sacred Heart – Vinyan – A review with discussion questions provided by the Australian chapter of the Catholic order
Frontier Myanmar: “Against their will: Myanmar’s modern day slaves” – A report on the state of slavery in Myanmar (Burma)
HOME VIDEO INFO: Although Vinyan got little theatrical distribution in the US, Sony Home Entertainment promptly released it on DVD (buy). The DVD contains numerous trailers for other Sony-distributed films of the era, but more importantly a 50-minurte “making of” documentary featurette.
Vinyan is not available on Blu-ray in North America, but imported discs from the Netherlands are available from an outfit called Mediafilm, for those with players that can handle them (buy). No special features are advertised.
Vinyan can also be found on-demand for rental or purchase, and, at the time of this writing, it is available free on Tubi (with ads).
(This movie was nominated for review by Dwarf Oscar, who called it “creepy and suffocating.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)