Review: Violent

It feels like happiness. It feels like remembering faces and words.  It feels like water. It feels like electricity. It sounds like a humming fridge.

Sometimes there comes a piece of art, a film, a group of brilliant young minds, which breathes new life into the hackneyed trope that is “the meaning of life.” It is uncommon but not impossible, and often presents itself in forms we least expect. Take, for example, the debut feature film of a relatively unknown progressive rock band.  Say it was originally made as a companion piece for their sophomore album, has a budget of $300 000, is mostly filmed with less than five crew members on set, and is shot entirely in a language none of the producers even remotely understand. What are the chances said film will go on to catch the eyes of viewers worldwide and be named the best Canadian movie at the Vancouver International Film Festival? What is the likelihood said film will achieve critical acclaim and catapult its producers into the cinematic stratosphere?

It’s uncommon, but not impossible.

And it seems “Violent,” Kelowna-based band We Are the City’s first foray into filmmaking, has a penchant for attaining the uncommon yet not impossible.

It feels like happiness. It feels like remembering faces and words.  It feels like water. It feels like electricity. It sounds like a humming fridge.

Violent is the heartrending coming-of-age tale of Dagny (played by Dagny Backer Johnsen, who shares our protagonist’s name), a young Norwegian woman seeking an answer and cure to her loneliness. Her story is split into five “chapters” that detail how she comes to say goodbye to the five people in her life who loved her most—Astrid, Embla, Bengt, Andrew, and Bestefar.Her farewells begin with her younger sister; in one of the most striking opening scenes, Astrid stands at the shores of a vast lake while Dagny wades into the water. Framed by snow-capped mountains and surrounded by the majesty that is the Norwegian wilderness, she baptizes herself. When she resurfaces, shivering, she waits several heartbeats with bated breath for God to make his move. The ensuing silence is expectant and anti-climactic, blanketed atop a barely discernible white noise. It is then the motifs of water and humming make their first appearances, and the scene is set for the rest of the events to unfold.

Dagny’s search for companionship and purpose leads her to move from her countryside home to the larger town of Bergen. Here, we meet the rest of the cast of characters who will gradually become the bittersweet notes in Dagny’s seemingly unremarkable life. She arrives elated to finally be with Embla, her cousin and best friend—only to discover she must prepare to say goodbye, for Embla is leaving for Stockholm. Comic relief presents itself in the form of Brent, Embla’s friend. He is an oblivious, quirky fellow whose deadpan manner of proclaiming utter nonsense (like his own death and subsequent reanimation) coaxes disbelieving amusement from the viewer. What’s not to like about a Norwegian man who insists on speaking choppy English and whose life goals are to never sleep again? Brent’s paranoia around exploding towers is endearing. And, in reference to the film’s heartbreaking revelations at the end, well-founded.

The film possesses a somber depth. Its heavy themes, sonic paucity, precise composition and dusky palette dominate  the screen, so the lighthearted moments—Brent’s ridiculous confrontation with some Norwegian thugs; Embla and Dagny as they shout cathartic obscenities from atop a mountain—are an unexpected delight. 

It feels like happiness. It feels like remembering faces and words.  It feels like water. It feels like electricity. It sounds like a humming fridge. 

As is to be expected from a film written, directed, and produced by a band, the score is more than complementary. It’s haunting, majestic, and completely befitting the elegiac subjects presented by Violent. We Are the City has constructed a sonic landscape that seems deliberately scarce, rife with pregnant pauses and weighty silences punctuated by mundane sounds which are amplified by silence—drip-drips and footsteps and incessant buzzing. Transitions between major scenes—such as when Dagny climbs the stairs to her room, or when she pushes Embla on a trolley through an abandoned hallway—contain no dialogue. Instead, they are matched with ethereal trills and synthesized arpeggios, progressive rhythms and pounding percussion, all reminiscent of tracks off the band’s album of the same name, “Violent,” which acts as a companion to the film.

The score is epitomized in the next chapter, titled “Bengt” after the lovelorn family friend Dagny goes to work for in Bergen. Scenes they share contain minimal sounds apart from their dialogue and movements, only serving to emphasize the very painful, very real awkwardness between them. The tension builds and comes to head in the final scenes, where syncopated drumbeats begin a gradual ascent as Dagny runs through the darkened streets of Bergen, hounded by a desperate Bengt. Her panic mounts in parallel with the crescendo of sound—a sonic representation of adrenaline and fear—until it all crashes down in a clashing of cymbals.

It feels like happiness. It feels like remembering faces and words.  It feels like water. It feels like electricity. It sounds like a humming fridge.

The sirenic thrall of Violent stems from its ambiguity. We are disoriented by the seeming disparity of the chapters, not to mention the repetitive, oddly melancholic voiceovers we hear between each story. What feels like happiness? What feels like water, like electricity, and sounds like a humming fridge? The interludes—abstract, static-like patterns and eerie shots of floating houses and suspended objects—possess elements of otherworldliness. They are the instruments by which the film transforms Dagny’s ordinary life into something quite extraordinary. By the first floating object, one realizes that the film isn’t quite all it seems to be. Reality has somehow been distorted—but how, and why, we don’t figure out until the very end.

Throughout Violent, we, viewers, and she, Dagny, are seeking to understand something. The catalyst for her understanding comes in the form of an English-speaking boy with whom she immediately hits it off. In contrast to the ones she shared with Bengt, the pauses in their conversation are organic, lulling, sparking with chemistry. In this stranger, in one night, Dagny finds a connection she has been pursuing perhaps her entire life. She experiences an epiphany while conversing with him: “Your biggest moments are spent alone,” she realizes. Being born, dying, every single one of your thoughts—all occur unaccompanied. “If this is being alone, being alone is quite okay.”

But the viewer’s revelation doesn’t occur until the fifth and final chapter, which is short and bittersweet. Dagny’s bestefar—her grandfather—holds the golden thread connecting each of the five stories. The truth behind the film dawns upon us as a simultaneously sinking and cathartic realization.

It feels like happiness. It feels like remembering faces and words.  It feels like water. It feels like electricity. It sounds like a humming fridge.

“Is it possible to make sense out of something that doesn’t make sense? With the film, there’s…this crazy idea of shooting it in a language that we don’t understand, and trying to make sense of that,” Andrew Huculiak, drummer of We Are the City and also the film’s writer/director, explained in an interview with CBC Radio 3.

And here the beauty of Violent is revealed:  it’s an exploration of the themes of loneliness against aloneness, life versus death, the various types of love, and how each element not only relates to but enhances the others. Each idea is presented while bearing in mind this greater, overarching theme: we are always trying to make sense of what can’t be made sense of. Life as defined by the film is, essentially, a series of disparate events that ultimately we must each bear alone—an accumulated conglomeration that makes up our human experience. It tells us that we are constantly trying to make sense of these disjointed events, and in doing so we are living. This idea of creating something from nothing—or more accurately, from a muddled medley of things—is reiterated throughout the film, from plot to cinematography to soundtrack.

We viewers struggle to make sense of the seemingly unrelated chapters of the film, just as Dagny seeks to make sense of her solitude, and we as humans strive to make sense of the disparate events that unfold around us.

When the truth finally comes to light and the film reveals both its first and final trick, we are left with the revelation that we have indeed made sense of something.

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