This Lithuanian psychosexual science fiction film has gotten enough positive press that I added it to my Netflix queue even though Netflix doesn’t have it yet. (I consider this a vote for Netflix to get it, although I’m not sure it actually works that way.) So when it showed up on the schedule of the Women in Cinema Film Festival at SIFF Uptown I jumped at the chance to see it.
It’s an utterly remarkable film, and it joins my list of favorite films of 2012 in a single bound. It’s about an experimental technology that allows one person to enter the mind of another, and thus it follows in the footsteps of earlier stories such as Roger Zelazny’s novella, “He Who Shapes” (1965), and Tarsem Singh’s first film, The Cell (2000). The story follows a scientist named Lukas who enters the mind of what he is told is a comatose man. He discovers that it’s actually a woman named Aurora, and he and she instantly form an intimate relationship of the mind and body within her mind.
To call this science fiction is perhaps slightly misleading, because it doesn’t have the classic genre interest in how ideas and technology transform the world. Instead it is focused on the psychology of relationships, of the Self and the Other and how they wound and bind each other. I’m not sure I completely understand the psychotherapeutic ideas it encompasses. It seems vaguely Freudian, but also made me think of a book I read back in the ’80s, Jessica Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. Not that it’s focused on domination per se, but it’s very much concerned — in its oblique, elliptical way — with the dynamic of power between individuals in a sexual relationship.
It’s not a horror film, but there’s a strong feeling of tension bordering on dread. Something is wrong. Lukas wants to fix it. We are taken deeper and deeper into Aurora’s mind in a series of recomplicating tableaus, and one of the great strengths of the film is that it doesn’t turn her mind into a virtual reality or narrative (unlike Inception, for instance). The excursions into her mind remain mysterious, half-focused, non-narrative, surreal, weird, wondrous. The visual style involves a lot of sudden edits from one context or viewpoint to another, wavering focus, compositions that obscure the subject, dreamlike illumination and darkness. The sound design is also very powerful, with half-heard noise trying to become coherent sound, mundane sounds becoming signs of incomprehensible unease. There are a lot of scenes in or by the water, creating a symbolic sense of restless transformation, birth, and death by drowning.
The sex is not exactly graphic, but it’s quite naked. The whole thing is quite naked emotionally. It’s a melodrama, and some elements of the story wouldn’t be out of place in a soap opera. Yet it’s relentlessly intellectual and nearly avant garde in its approach to the melodrama — and to the science fiction as well. It creates layers of abstract, mathematical imagery over the raw emotions of its two protagonists.
It’s really quite something. I highly recommend it. It’s unlike any other science fiction film I’ve seen, really, and probably more like European psychodramas about love and codependence. Yes, I suppose it’s a little like Leos Carax’s Boy Meets Girl (1984), which I just watched recently for the first time, but I liked Vanishing Waves a lot better, perhaps because it’s more about the girl than about the boy, despite the fact that the boy is still the viewpoint character. Strange trick, that. Is it true? I’ll have to think on it.