Bas Devos’ first full-length film is one of the most realistic and sensitive portrayals of grief ever depicted on screen. Violet is steady, calm, not without some emotional climaxes, but otherwise quiet in its representation of youth coming to terms with death.
15-year-old Jesse (Cesar De Sutter) witnesses the violent and unexpected death of a close friend. There are no weepy funeral scenes in Violet. There are no stirring eulogies or grandiose realizations about the meaning of life. If anything, Violet is a look at the most difficult part of death: moving on.
Violet is effective, in part, from the way it is styled. There is very little dialogue throughout, characters only speaking when there is something to be said. The camera is close, intimate. There’s no hurry. Sometimes the audience just watches Jesse watch television or sit in the car. Grief is often felt in the most normal and mundane situations.
In fact, by the time Jesse lashes out at the skate park, it feels long overdue. He’s remained calm and controlled up until that point, as many often do after the initial shock of death wears off. Later in the film, Jesse is seen biking home at dusk, rolling what can be assumed to be his friend’s bicycle along with him. Two bikes, one empty. The scene is almost silent minus the whirring of gears. In the following scene, Jesse laughs and watches television with his mother as she strokes his head. This is his life now: different, no doubt, but he is not alone. Grief and healing progress at a natural, slow rate, sometimes felt with the full force of anger, sometimes barely felt at all. This is where Violet works best.
That said, the minimalist styling of Violet may not suit every audience member. The film is almost completely dialogue-free, and its pacing is slow. It’s a universe that doesn’t meet its audience halfway; one is fully immersed into Devos’ right from the beginning. It’s experimental and highly visual, occasionally to a fault. The film is quiet and sensitive to a point where it is occasionally dull. Perhaps dullness is true to life, but film is meant to be, to some extent, larger than life. In trying to capture the realism of grief, Devos verges on the side of uninteresting. Additionally, Devos will break up certain scenes with footage of colors and old videotapes. While it’s encouraging to see a young filmmaker toy with style and color, it also doesn’t add anything to the narrative. The piece as a whole would work just as well without them, and perhaps flow a little more smoothly.
Violet is a tremendous risk for a first time filmmaker, shying away from traditional narrative structure for an altogether visual, immersive experience. It’s uncomfortable and still, and yet it thrives in a nervous energy. It’s as complex and all-consuming as grief is in day-to-day life. Violet doesn’t end, it just fades.