A scene from Violet (Ryan Bruce Levey Film Distribution)

A teenage boy stands by passively as another teenager stabs his friend to death. Why doesn’t the bystander act? And how will the killing affect him? Resolutions prove elusive in Belgian director Bas Devos’s moody Violet. The film is ostensibly about grief and guilt, but it feels more like a test of the director’s preoccupations, deploying a voyeuristic eye and an array of intriguingly warped, beautiful cinematic effects to scatter questions far removed from the violent main event.

It opens with a grid of video screens showing trouble afoot in a deserted shopping mall. A young rough trade type stares down another young man on grainy CCTV. Their faceoff could end with someone getting laid—or getting hurt. Reflected on one of the screens is the downcast, bald head of an aged security guard. He should be watching the onscreen action, but he wearily (and uselessly) dodders away on a break. That’s when the killing happens, with the third young man standing by haplessly holding his bike.

Jolts of wild filmmaking electrify the movie after these crude opening scenes. The aspect ratio narrows and tightens the screen; golden light falls on the motionless face of Jesse, the young witness (César de Sutter), as his mother wipes blood away. The camera overflows with psychedelic blots and drab landscapes, and focuses on mute, empty rooms Chantal Akerman–style. Audio inexplicably drops out; sometimes we can see a scene but can’t hear it or hear it but not see it. Are they all symbols of Jesse’s post-murder disconnection and isolation, or mannerism for its own sake?

Jesse tries to resume hanging out with his group of friends, who throw themselves into BMX biking the way the Paranoid Park gang lost themselves on skateboards. His exchanges with them are terse and freighted with implicit blame. One encounter drives him to destructive rage. Meanwhile, Jesse’s father (Koen de Sutter) alternates between wariness and tender attempts to reach out to his son.

Explorations of the boy’s emotional state feel strikingly vulnerable and real one minute, art damaged and opaque the next. Two beautiful images tell the story of young and old: Jesse’s hand out a car window, open against the wind, then his father’s hand tightened around a cigarette. Shots of a spied-on house at dark and two figures working on a billboard play with distance and create disorientation. At these moments, Violet soars free.

Throughout the camera lingers endlessly on César de Sutter, a Hanson Brothers look-alike blessed with flawless skin, a mop of perfect surfer hair, and a luscious mouth half-open for half the movie. Yet, would the bereavement of a teen be so mesmerizing? Emphasizing the character’s withdrawal, Devos cuts around some pivotal moments in Jesse’s confrontation with the past, making you wonder if the young actor could handle his scenes.

In its stylized way, Violet highlights a particular kind of masculine stalemate. The film’s world is male, with Jesse, his father, and his buddies in the foreground; women or girls barely exist here, with mom fitfully around to comfort and coax a smile from her son’s wan lips. Men and boys hold back, stay quiet, or seethe with inward anger.

Male rigidity seems to be something of a contemporary fetish, as more mainstream films, like Manchester by the Sea and T2 Trainspotting, pay backhanded homage to men’s inability to learn or reach out. For all its extravagant visuals and enigmatic forays, Violet can feel like something very familiar: a boy’s club, a solemn yet disorienting one.

Written and Directed by Bas Devos
Released by Ryan Bruce Levey Film Distribution
Belgium/Netherlands. 82 min. Not rated
With César de Sutter and Koen de Sutter

VIOLET trailer from Bas Devos on Vimeo.