After his best friend is killed before his eyes in a random act of violence, the teen protagonist of “Violet,” Belgian helmer Bas Devos’ debut feature, wanders around in a state of semi-shock, unable to reconnect with “normal” existence. Devos depicts stages of grief not as a series of emotions but as an evolving alchemy of perception that surrounds the protagonist, distorting time, space, color and light in patterns of dislocation, muffling the synapses that connect sounds and images. Intensely stylized, highly original and utterly mesmerizing, “Violet” could stun arthouse audiences worldwide.
The murder that overshadows the entire film is seen only indistinctly on a silent closed-circuit TV as a night watchman, reflected on the screen, leaves just before the apparently motiveless stabbing. Devos then cuts to the mall itself as 15-year-old Jesse (Cesar De Sutter), obviously in shock, hesitantly steps forward to witness the last breaths and movements of his best friend, Jonas.
The inability to understand what has happened, much less cope with it, infects every character and every image. Jesse cannot explain to himself or to others why he was spared, or why he passively looked on and didn’t move to help Jonas. Jesse’s parents (Raf Walschaerts, Mira Helmer) see his grief but are powerless to make it go away. Jonas’ parents seem as traumatized as Jesse: His father (Koen De Sutter) moves in mechanical fits and starts while his mother (Fania Sorel) clutches Jonas’ plastic-bagged, bloodstained clothes and plaintively asks what she’s supposed to do with them.
The most radical disconnections, however, happen within the frame through the extraordinary lensing of “Bullhead” cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, who frequently rack-focuses from sharp-edged foreground figures, set against an impressionistic haze, to blurry foreground figures, set against a clear-cut backdrop. Thus, when Jesse, feeling empathy, grief or guilt, spies on Jonas’s family, his fuzzy silhouette registers as almost invisible against their house, while family members split up into lonely squares of light. In his own dimly lit home, Jesse often dematerializes like a ghost, virtually dissolving into formlessness.
Musical group Deafheaven’s song “Violet” supplies the film’s title, and a Deafheaven concert furnishes the film with a key visual setpiece, as a mass of out-of-focus people jump up and down under ultraviolet strobe lights, the camera zeroing in until it frames a single, somewhat monstrous figure — Jesse — sporadically caught in increasingly clear yet ultimately unreadable expressions of conflicting emotion.
The film is shot in Academy ratio as long-take closeups of unmoving characters assume the expectant, unnatural stillness of portraiture. Details often protrude outside any meaningful context, the camera lingering for long moments on a table, a chair or pair of shoes. This fragmentation, already operative in the multiple disparate screens that capture the murder, extends to a crucial later scene, tellingly shown only in a series of discrete details.
Different modes of perception, rarely overtly subjective, run rampant as stretches of streaming video reduced to patches of color or to other assorted distortions intrude on the slender narrative. Some have compared Karakatsanis’ quasi-experimental camerawork to that of Christopher Doyle in Gus Van Sant’s not-dissimilar “Paranoid Park,” particularly since that film’s skateboarding world finds a close correlative in the BMX milieu of “Violet.” Not knowing how to normalize their bond in Jonas’ absence, Jesse and his friends silently ride through his suburban neighborhood, with Jesse alone earthbound and everyone else jumping or twirling in midair.
But altered perception is not limited to the image. Selective sound design sporadically amps up certain audio elements, while muting or entirely eliminating others to equally disorienting effect as Jesse tunes in and out of awareness of his surroundings. And a breath-holding silence accompanies the incredible six-and-a-half-minute tracking shot that ends the pic in magisterial fashion.