Fantastic Fest Review: Vesper

Eco-horror melds with fairytales in this remarkable SF parable

Vesper (Image Courtesy of IFC Films)

In the future of Vesper, much like our own present, there is the edible and inedible. The control of that which is edible is the ultimate source of power, and the ability to let the nature grow freely is the ultimate act of rebellion.

In their second film, Fantastic Fest 2012 multi-award-winner Vanishing Waves, Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Semper created a surrealist wonderland in the mind of a woman trapped in a coma. Technically, Vesper is their first film as co-directors: while they cowrote the script for Vanishing Waves, Buožytė was the sole credited director, while Semper was the "visual style author."

That could account for the organic changes, but then this film is not about the strange sensuality and flowing visuals of their debut. Instead, this is a world of corrupted growth: or rather, one that has seemingly outgrown humanity, and is sending it back to the soil. In a not-so-subtle dig at how agribusiness now can "turn off" seeds, starving the farming community, the distant Citadels have created an economic system of genetically modified seeds and blood - literally exsanguinating the youth of the countryside. This vampiric trade isn't one of brutality: the outlands just accept that that's how things are. Ah, isn't that how predatory business always works,

Unlike most eco-horrors, this is not an arid, baked future; it is green and verdant, but utterly inhospitable, and this is the world in which Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) has found herself. A 13-year-old with a flair for biosciences, she sits in a collapsing house with the mummified body of her mother and her paralyzed father (Richard Brake, a frozen mass of keening desperation) who has been gifted a limited mobility by the Citadel that used him up in the war: a floating drone that he can control, psionically, on which Vesper has painted a happy face. Crack the drone open, and its more organic than metallic, and that's the nature of technology in this future. The environment has gone wild with dangerous plants, aggressive fungi and sneaky little beasts that snap and ensnare: sleep against the wrong log and you'll be mulch by morning, and that's something else Vesper must navigate. And she does so smoothly, all the while fending off the interests of her uncle, Jonas (a suitably menacing and low-rent lugubrious Eddie Marsan), the boss who deals with the Citadels from the same mire as her.

Of course, there's a hiccup in the disorder of things - or rather two. First, Vesper finds lost seeds upon which she can experiment; second, a ship from the Citadel crashes, and an impossibly pallid women, Camellia (Rosy McEwan) is the sole survivor. Over her father's protestations (he's been used up by the Citadel), Vesper takes her in, and these two catalyzing opportunities are enough to set her on an inevitable path to changing the world.

But she is a quiet revolutionary. There's no Hunger Games spectacle here: instead, Vesper and Camellia quietly inhabit this fantastical land. Most biohorror mimics Cronenberg and has a few new squishy elements within our very normal world. Vesper's whole world has evolved - explaining why the unseen elites have taken refuge in their mushroom-like Citadels - and the peasants left in the mire think no more of a push that shoots toxic, seemingly semi-sentient darts is no stranger to them than a hornet's next to us.

There is a fairytale aspect, of the dangerous forest that the plucky young heroine must overcome to slay the beast; but, more importantly, fairytales are metaphors. Vesper herself is not some pristine princess, but the scientist who is convinced that their idea can overcome a system that has corrupted the environment. The changed world - seductively, brutally, dangerously entrancing as it is - is the result of the Citadel's meddling, and her task is to undo the incorrect. She's less Snow White than a grimy teenage Galileo, seeing the patterns that others deny - either through stupidity or determination to hang on to power. Chapman's performance is deliberately understated, because this is a world of quiet and strangeness. Few futures have been so ... organic, and while the story may initially seem to imply the wild, gruesome histrionics of Annihilation and its Shimmer, Vesper hews closer to the mycological mysticism of South African survival horror Gaia, or Ben Wheatley's peat-black enviro comedy In The Earth. Under the muck and mire, It's a reminder that both life and hope can be surprisingly durable, flexible, and morphable.


Vesper

US Premiere

Mon., Sept. 26, 11:15am

Fantastic Fest runs in person Sept. 22-29, and online with FF@Home Sept. 29-Oct. 4. Tickets and passes at fantasticfest.com.

Follow all our coverage, news, reviews, and interviews at austinchronicle.com/fantastic-fest.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Fantastic Fest, Fantastic Fest 2022, Vesper

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