There’s an image that’s become a minor favourite of indie sci-fi filmmakers and their marketing teams. You’ve likely seen it on Netflix. It’s of a person whose head is covered in a squid-like carapace, a kind of crown made of sensors suctioned to their head. The Netflix original The Discovery (2017), and the Netflix bought Advantageous (2015) both use it. I’m unsure of its likely origin, I’m sure it’s been around forever in some form, but I know where I first saw it: Kristina Buožytė’s Vanishing Waves (2012).
The Lithuanian director, only 34 years old, hasn’t followed her third film up properly and I can understand why. Vanishing Waves is a film that sucks you under its spell, pinions you to your seat, rewires your senses and then spits you out. Watching it is like being dragged through someone else’s dreams. I can only imagine making it must have taken quite a bit out of her.
It begins in darkness while our hero has the plot explained to him. It centers on a new technology that allows him to enter the unconscious mind of other people. They’re starting the experiment with coma patients as an active brain would present an overwhelming amount of data to process. It’s never completely explained, but it’s reasonable enough to assume that the technology will be used to treat mental illness, but like Inception (2010), it hardly matters why, it’s more about the journey. Unlike Inception, Vanishing Waves is explicitly an emotional and erotic text, a chance to live in the non-verbal zones of pleasure we hide in our every day lives.
The technicians discuss their rationale for the experiment that will set the film in motion behind a black screen and then Buožytė unleashes a torrent of surging light, colours, shapes and music lithe and angular. There is no room for logic and looking back when the film begins. The film is practically an assault of convergent textures. Like the tides, of the mind and of the ocean conjured by comatose Aurora (Jurga Jutaite) in her dream life, it oscillates between the cold brutalism of reality, and the soft, busy warmth of the unreal.
Lukas (Marius Jampolskis) is our astronaut, the man sent to a sensory deprivation tank with the nest of EMG electrodes on his cleanly shaven heads to commune with Aurora’s brainwaves. To live in the world she’s now confined to since being in the coma. The world is every bit as tactile, idiosyncratic and personalized as we hope from such an invention. Buožytė chooses everything carefully. The colours adhere to a kind of dusky pastel palette, a kind of greatest hits of the textures that Aurora associates with her most pleasant memories. As one of the doctors tells Lukas “Objectivity is a fetish of truth.” We get her version of purgatory, complete with a specter of a man (director Sarunas Bartas, who played another sort of phantom doppelgänger in Pola X (1999)) she can’t shake. And it wouldn’t be so seductive to Lukas (and of course, it must be, for this is cautionary science fiction) if it didn’t present a negative image of his own life. His home life he starts to shed the minute he meets Aurora in the dream. He was never ready for the love his wife brings him. The doctors, all older than him by forty years or so, scold him and control him. Their office and the laboratory are slate, blinding white, and wet black. When they affix him with the webbed tiara of sensors, they turn him into a piece of architecture, clashing with the sound proofed walls marked by zigzagging triangular designs behind him. He’s clearly just waiting for a chance to escape what he sees as a life of closed doors and walls. Boundaries. In the dream, everything is vast and endless.
Vanishing Waves has a lot of troubling things to say about men let loose on the minds of women, about what they’ll submit to because it’s pleasurable, or even comparably pleasurable to the lives they currently lead. Lukas experiences withdrawal from his time with Aurora almost immediately. During their first encounter they kiss and in their second they make passionate love bathed in light borrowed from Vittorrio Storaro. He’s soon trying to have similarly rough, fearless sex with his wife, who rejects him, and then he’s paying for it in alleys and also being rejected. No flesh and blood person can compete with a cypher in a dream world. Reality cannot keep up. Aurora, dying in her comatose state, has nothing to lose. Lukas, bored to madness with his, wants to join her there, and will jeopardize whatever he pleases to do so.
Vanishing Waves is one of the most vicious films about movie going ever made. It understands the allure, the appeal of wanting to drift endlessly in other people’s fantasies (Lukas even plays a video game in one scene but isn’t satiated by its momentary diversion from his life), and knows what too many years looking for light in the dark can do the brain, to our expectations. It makes us reorient our view of the romantic and the sensual, makes us crave light and touch we never understood or even knew before we saw them a thousand feet high on a movie screen. Lukas and Aurora even find themselves leaving Aurora’s dream home (an impossibly constructed cubist vacation home) to watch a movie we can’t see in a large empty theatre.
The film drops us into their reveries, largely without dialogue, to prolong the feeling of intimacy, of a dream, of being the sole witness to someone screaming to be let out of their vision of paradise, because they know it’s incomplete. Aurora seems to know she won’t wake from her coma and her terror spreads. She clings to the pleasure she derives from touching and making love with Lukas with an addict’s fervor. Anyone who’s sought solace in the arms of another person will understand this to a degree, but there’s something more menacing at work here. I’ve felt it almost all my life. The fear of what happens when paradise vanishes, and the black space around the dream becomes all encompassing. It’s why I can’t fall asleep without a movie playing in my bedroom and haven’t been able to for years. Film is more to me than just an escape. It’s more important than reality, because though it can’t provide answers to life’s questions, it fills the void better and more sweetly than anything. If I could close my eyes and see the films I love most in the world every night, I’d be tempted. Our dreams can’t be controlled and they do not always provide pleasure. Movies do. They transport us, move us through time and space and show us things we’d never find otherwise. Vanishing Waves is one of the only films that has captured my feeling of dependency on moving images, on other people’s dreams. It’s no wonder its central image has been so frequently lifted. It promises complete immersion in a new kind of reality, of our mind traveling when the body sits still. Buožytė cuts from an image of Aurora crying at the unknowable motion picture to her face, framed by the sterile crown of electrodes, to hammer home the soul-crushing difference between the dream and the real world. That is what it can be to walk out of a theatre and out onto the street.
Is it a sickness? Maybe. But life will never cure it holistically. Movies are the placebo, my shelter from the bleak truths I choose to ignore as often as I can because life can be beautiful. And it’s in the glow of that truth and my handpicked, gorgeously composed lies that I choose to live. Films will always reach back for us when he extend a hand. That comfort can be the hardest thing in the world to ignore.