‘Vanishing Waves’ Is an Erotic and Surreal Sci-Fi Head Trip

A familiar criticism of Christopher Nolan is that his films are sterile and sexless, an adolescent male’s view of a macho world where the only women are either wholly masculinized or objects of abstract, neutered desire, like fairytale princesses. Never was this more apparent than in 2010’s Inception, which presumed to give audiences an immersive depiction of unconscious dream states, but left anyone over the age of 13 who had ever actually visited the land of Nod wondering, “What happened to the sex?”

In 2012’s Vanishing Waves, her second feature, Lithuanian writer-director Kristina Buozyte revisits some of the same dream-voyaging concepts as Inception did. But unlike Nolan, no one can accuse her of leaving out the dirty stuff. The dreamworld she presents in Vanishing Waves is a surreal and explicit psychosexual smorgasbord that would make Freud blush, and which feels much closer than Nolan’s film to capturing the actual experience of dreaming — albeit those sorts of creepy, uncomfortable dreams where, mid-liason, your fantasy partner suddenly develops Abe Lincoln’s face or starts talking with the voice of your mother. Buozyte clearly takes her inspiration from the bygone era of sci fi head-trips like Altered States and Solaris, but rather than simply copy them she has repurposed many of their best elements to create a truly unique, visionary and imaginative journey to the center the mind.

Buozyte’s lead is Lukas (played by Marius Jampolskis, who also appeared in her debut The Collectress), a blank slate of a scientist selected to participate in a ”neuron transfer” experiment, which involves placing him in a sensory deprivation tank and hooking his brain up with sensors as he tries to make a mental connection with the psyche of an unresponsive coma patient. (Buozyte and co-writer Bruno Samper wisely make the decision not to waste any time bothering to explain the fake science in a vain attempt to make the impossible sound plausible.) The scientists are hoping for any vague hint of the slightest connection, but after an initial false start Lukas is soon bounding through the murky subconscious of his experimental counterpart, and most of the film takes place during these hallucinatory journeys through the recesses of the unconscious mind.

Although he is supposed to remain in the dark about the identity of the mind that he’s connecting with, Lukas quickly discovers that it’s a beautiful young woman named Aurora (Jurga Jutaite, in a hypnotic and powerful performance). And although he is supposed to remain an impartial observer during these psychic forays, he just as quickly leaves behind his professional ethics to begin a torrid love affair with her, albeit one that takes places entirely within the psychedelic dreamworld of their blended consciousnesses.

As he lies to his scientist handlers (and his faithful waking-life girlfriend) by claiming to be perpetually on the verge of making contact, he secretly carries on his incorporeal affair with Aurora, meeting her for a series of increasingly bizarre and surreal sexual encounters that take him ever farther down the rabbit hole of her disjointed subconscious. As the duplicity of his waking life begins to grow untenable, he becomes obsessed with penetrating deeper and deeper into Aurora’s subconscious, making sense of her memories and, just possibly, bringing her back to the world of the living.

The visuals that Buozyte and her effects team create to conjure up the skewed dreamscapes inhabited these characters are nothing short of astonishing, and among the most haunting and truly surreal cinematic imagery to come along in years. The filmmakers do an incredible job of recreating the moment-to-moment experience of dreaming, and have a particular knack for keeping the viewer spatially off-balance, with distances that seem to subtly compress and expand from moment to moment and sets that are constantly changing in difficult-to-describe ways.

Buozyte is good at devising mesmerizingly credible dream imagery that looks it was dredged up from a haunted and broken subconscious, particularly as Lukas and Aurora’s sexual encounters go from passionately erotic to disturbing and nightmarish. Some of the most arresting images include a house that seems to be eternally in the process of shredding itself, and a truly unforgettable Cronenberg-by-way-of-Matthew-Barney) orgy that seems to be nothing more than a tangle of disembodied arms and legs, undulating together in a single autonomous mass. As a director, Buozyte proves to be remarkably creative when it comes to visually dramatizing plot elements that many other directors would find unfilmable. This is, after all, a film where much of the “action”, technically speaking, is pure thought.

Although the limited narrative is sometimes overdependent on the stunning visuals and atmosphere, the scenario that Buozyte creates still manages to toy with some pretty heady questions. How “real” is our interior life? Can we ever truly know the mind or experiences of another person? How well can we even know our own minds? It’s the stuff of the glory days of cerebral ’70s science fiction, and Buozyte borrows liberally from Tarkovsky and Kubrick, among plenty of others, but still manages to craft those borrowed parts into a truly original vision filled with eroticism, philosophical searching, and visual splendor. As only her second feature, it heralds the arrival of a provocative and exciting new European talent, and it deserves to be noticed by cinephiles around the world.

The DVD, released in a lavish two-disc set by Artsploitation Films, is loaded down with generous special features that include featurettes, the complete soundtrack, and a thick Criterion-style booklet with essays and interviews. Most interestingly, though, Artsploitation also includes Kristina Buozyte’s entire 84-minute debut feature The Collectress, giving curious film fans an easy chance to familiarize themselves and get up-to-date with her entire body of work before her next effort makes its way to Western screens — whenever that may be.

RATING 8 / 10