Bas Devos’ gorgeous and sparse film Violet opens with a shot of four CCTVs as they capture Jesse and best friend Jonas hanging out in the mall. The scene seems insignificant at first, as even the security guard monitoring the footage leaves his post at one point. However, the cameras silently observe Jesse and Jonas as they get into a violent altercation with another pair of teenagers.
What causes the incident is unknown, but it is clear that the event weighs heavy on Jesse, who instead of helping his friend can only back away and watch in fear. The uncomfortable distance, both Jesse’s physical one from Jonas body and the audiences distance in watching the incident, is what drives Violet. In navigating Jesse’s feeling of being emotionally removed from the world around him, Devos crafts a blistering film about the complexities of survivor’s guilt.
There are no big speeches or any of the usual trappings one might expect from a film of this nature, in fact there is barely any dialogue at all. Instead Devos primarily presents a sensory experience of his exploration of grief. Lingering in the quiet spaces, which are equally haunting and strangely serene, the presence of anger and confusion is frequently simmering underneath. Aside from a few outbursts, which in themselves feel muted when considering the film as a whole, Jesse’s inner turmoil is both subtle and powerful at the same time.
The sparseness of Violet is occasionally offset by the sounds of BMX bicycles on the asphalt and loud metal music blaring from a concert hall, but even those instances revel in the distance that Devos continually reiterates from a visual standpoint. The concert scene in particular is quite riveting as the camera slowly zooms in, the strobe lights of the show creating an almost nightmarish dream world, to reveal Jesse and two of his friends amongst the once faceless crowd. Devos’ lens eventually settles on Jesse’s face and sits, letting the audience soak in the rage that radiates off of his seemingly calm demeanor.
While the stunning cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis make up the veins that keeps Devos film moving, it is the brilliant and understated performance by Cesar De Sutter that proves to be the heart in which the life blood of the film flows. Sutter manages to articulate the layers of guilt and the grief, that often come with trauma, in a magnetic way.
Devos brand of filmmaking, while electric, is bound to bring complaints of style over substances. While not an easy film to digest, Violet is more far rewarding, and features more depth, than its somber shell reveals from the outside.