In 'Violet,' A Deadly Assault And A Dispassionate Survivor Flemish writer-director Bas Devos' visually striking, enigmatic tale of sudden violence and internalized emotion dares audiences to empathize with its closed-off teen protagonist.
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In 'Violet,' A Deadly Assault And A Dispassionate Survivor

Jesse (Cesar De Sutter) is a Belgian teen dealing with the aftermath of an attack in Violet. Ryan Bruce Levy hide caption

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Ryan Bruce Levy

Jesse (Cesar De Sutter) is a Belgian teen dealing with the aftermath of an attack in Violet.

Ryan Bruce Levy

Jesse and Jonas, two BMX-riding teens in the suburbs, are hanging out at the mall one afternoon when two nameless punks jump them. There's an altercation and Jonas dies, bleeding out on the linoleum floor while Jesse watches, paralyzed with fear. We see these actions not as the kids experience them but through the security guard's office, on a grid of CCTVs. Their dispassionate vantage point traps the victims inside their boxes of horror, and leaves us far, far away from the emotional heart of the tragedy.

The literal distance quickly transmutes into a psychological one, and proves to be the central idea of Violet, a film made with the full knowledge that it will infuriate many of the people who watch it. Slight on narrative but long on style, the feature-length debut from Flemish writer-director Bas Devos is coming to a smattering of U.S. theaters three years after its 2014 premiere in Belgium. The film follows Jesse (a magnificent breakout role for Cesar De Sutter) through the grieving process, mainly via long, static takes, in a square 1:33 aspect ratio, as its hero tries and fails to articulate his specific kind of survivor's guilt. But Jesse barely speaks, and we soon realize that the film isn't really interested in filling in his thoughts; it's trying to plunge us into the void at his center.

Scenes are so abstract, they aren't even the building blocks of a story; more like the floorboards suggesting a surface where those building blocks would go if they existed. But it's surprising to see how much we can ascertain from the clues Devos does provide — they may make you realize how superfluous most scenes in movies really are. Jesse watches from his bike at a distance as a succession of kids march right in front of the camera, their identities blurred except for the tiny flames from their candles, and so we know there is a vigil. He continually looks at a house across the street, focusing on how the family inside it appears to be navigating a blank space, and so we can assume that Jonas once lived there, and that Jesse is not the only one feeling his absence. Later, he rides through his neighborhood — a network of identical two-level houses and bright green lawns connected by quiet streets and birdsong — while steering an empty bike next to his own. De Sutter's posture and glower tell us everything. What more do you need? the film wants to know.

Devos owes a heavy debt to Gus Van Sant, particularly the collision of horrific violence and blank-faced banality in Elephant, and the skater boy struggling with questions of death and culpability in Paranoid Park. Because Violet's teens barely speak, and because they sport the same grungy mops of hair and baggy clothes, it's easy to imagine them pulling off their bike tricks in Van Sant's Portland, Oregon, instead of suburban Belgium. It's the same cinematic language, showing how teens can hover around each other in comforting or sinister silence. But all that abstraction misses Van Sant's gift for detail: we may barely meet the kids in Elephant, but we know who they are, and that's why their tragedy affects us so deeply. Devos's wayward youth can only be ciphers, closed off even to themselves.

And such internalized emotion hurts the film where it counts. After the opening murder, there are only two moments of high conflict. The first comes when Jesse attempts to seek refuge with his BMX buddies at their favorite halfpipe in the woods, and one calls him a coward to his face. The second is at another skatepark, when a younger kid gets in Jesse's business with a cell phone video, and all his pent-up tension suddenly unleashes in a torrent of destruction. There's an emotional dilemma we can't resolve, because of how little we know about Jesse or even the murder itself. The film asks us to grapple with what we don't know, to the degree our patience allows.

But there is so much splendor here that you may not mind the emptiness. With a name evoking the color at the end of the visible spectrum, Violet appropriately becomes a sensory film. Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, in his limited aspect ratio, sees familiar sights with new eyes. Teens careen their bikes toward the sky, then dip out of sight when they reach the ground. A headbanger's concert is a strobe-light sea of disembodied bobbing faces. And the extended take that closes the film clouds our minds with mystery. Is it old hat now to say there are no easy answers in life? Well, the young don't always remember such words of wisdom.