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Stephen Dalton [Film Festival 07.07.12] scifi thriller drama

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A stylish Lithuanian sci-fi thriller from the young female director Kristina Buozyte, Vanishing Waves brings an agreeable dash of Baltic fatalism and romantic melodrama to a traditionally male-dominated genre. This visually impressive inner-space odyssey has just had its world premiere at Karlovy Vary film festival, earning a special jury mention in the section dedicated to Eastern European cinema.

Marius Jampolskis stars as Lukas, a neuroscientist recruited for a morally dubious medical experiment. Repeatedly placed in an induced coma, his mission is to try and enter the mind of an unknown comatose patient. But his fantastic voyage has unseen dangers, not only physical but emotional too. Although it never quite delivers on its enticingly bizarre promise, Vanishing Waves starts strongly with a gripping and mysterious first half. It is not hard to imagine a Hollywood studio remaking this high-concept plot.

Entering the subconscious depths, Lukas senses himself emerging from a mist-shrouded lake onto an idyllic shoreline. In a strikingly modernist wooden villa he meets a beautiful young woman, Aurora (Jurga Jutaite). Their mutual attraction is instant, and soon they are having artfully shot sex. Lots and lots of sex. Returning to the conscious world, an infatuated Lukas chooses to keep these encounters a secret from his colleagues. Instead he launches his own investigation, uncovering her real identity. A coma patient in the hospital, her troubled life hangs by a thread. Can he save her? Should he jeopardise his career and marriage for a fantasy love affair that may prove to be a trick of the mind?

Co-written by its creative director Bruno Samper, Vanishing Waves looks and sounds great. A near-constant sonic backdrop of ambient rock, dissonant drones and avant-jazz noises heightens the sense of creeping dread and mental disorientation. For the film’s high-art production design, Buozyte and Samper cherry-pick from the pantheon of classic sci-fi cinema. The soundproofed flotation room where Lukas begins his experiments has some of the chilly futurism of Kubrick circa 2001, all pristine white and sinister humming machinery. Meanwhile his altered-state affair with Aurora echoes Tarkovksy’s original mind-bending adaptation of Solaris, in which a grieving cosmonaut conducted a bizarre romance with a psychically generated clone of his late wife.

Sadly, for all its visual razzle-dazzle and high production values, Vanishing Waves falls short on the cinematic basics of plot, character and dialogue. The reckless speed with which Lukas gambles his family and job on a budding fantasy romance feels absurdly implausible at best. The English portions of the bilingual script are also clumsily written and flatly delivered, as if the mostly Lithuanian cast have learned them phonetically. Stretching a thin story to two hours, Buozyte allows the dramatic momentum to dissipate. Even the abundant sex scenes, which stray into arty soft porn at times, eventually become tedious.

In fairness, Vanishing Waves is a technically impressive and commendably ambitious work for an inexperienced director who only turns 30 this year. Reportedly made on a budget of around 1.5 million dollars, it feels much more expensive, and maintains an agreeably unsettling atmosphere right to the final frame. Even with its limited handful of locations, it manages to conjure up a broad range of psychedelic dreamscapes, from gleaming digital sunsets to sumptuous open-air beach banquets to a nightmarish, limb-twisting, flesh-melting orgy scene that recalls Brian Yuzna’s cult 1989 class-war satire, Society.

But it is hard to sympathise with such broadly sketched characters, who behave illogically and dangerously throughout, while too many sequences feel like visual effects interludes with scant dramatic significance. Ultimately, Buozyte’s second feature is a triumph of style over substance, but at least it takes you on a fascinating journey before reaching its disappointing destination.

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