Beyond the Black Rainbow will be screening as a part of Psychoplasmic Panic! Cronenberg and the Rise of Body Horror at the TIFF Bell Lightbox theater on Sunday, November 10th, 2013 at 7:00pm.
The first time I viewed Panos Cosmatos‘ 2010 film Beyond the Black Rainbow, it was on a VHS released by Austin’s boutique label Mondo. In some ways, it might have been a near-perfect way to experience the fever-dream set to synths that is Beyond the Black Rainbow – a film that washes the viewer in a texture-heavy aesthetic perfectly suited to the lo-fi, analogue format. In another way though, the film’s gorgeous cinematography begs to be seen in all of its widescreen, hi-def glory. This clashing of intentions might just encapsulate the picture on the whole: a film that initially draws a line in the sand, not allowing its aesthetic to be influenced by the need for a fully coherent narrative. Over the course of the film though, this line begins to be traipsed upon by the movie itself and the characters within it.
It’s easy to write the film off as a dull, pretentious, or often meaningless pastiche of other art – a cursory Google search will reveal many who already have. And yet, there’s a brilliance to the film’s deliberately obtuse way of telling what appears to be a fairly stripped down plot. We are introduced to Therapist Dr. Barry Nyle, who is keeping a telekinetic patient named Elena (Eva Allan) captive behind a large pane of glass underneath the Aboria Institute. Elana longs for escape, while Nyle subjects her to interrogations and tests in an attempt to understand her powers. This sets off a series of events – and one flashback – that when charted out, form a plot that could theoretically be described as easy to understand. Instead of telling that story straight, though, Cosmatos’ film seems thoroughly uninterested in plotting and much more focused on mood. This leaves the bulk of the work up to the viewer, which can often be as frustrating as it is rewarding.
To dig a little deeper, the mirrored image of the opening title card immediately references the aforementioned duality of the film’s themes of power and isolation. Just as the doctor keeps Elena in control from behind the safety of his protective glass, the film’s measured and hypnotic pace similarly locks the audience down under its control – and the viewer almost begins to feel as if the film is doing its own interrogation. Meanwhile, the Aboria Institute seems to be trapped or isolated in time – a facility that is shown to have been born of the 60s new-age movement, but has remained stagnant well into the 80s. This results in a film with a style that is deeply at odds with that of the era it takes place in.
So, when the film finally does jump outside of the isolating walls of the laboratory, the aesthetic jumps right along with it. Beyond the Black Rainbow slowly transforms, and is no longer an extremely precise, clinical experience when removed from the institute and modern characterizations are introduced. By this point, Nyle himself has gone through a transformation, into a knife wielding psychopath, and the film becomes pleasurable on a decidedly more base level – not unlike that of a VHS-era horror film – and the line in the sand is revealed to have been fully erased.
Beyond the Black Rainbow is not a film that is easy to enjoy, per se – it almost dares the viewer not to like it. That’s why the film lands somewhere between love and hate for me – it’s a movie that tries as hard as it can to get me to hate it (at times succeeding), and yet for so many reasons, I also cannot help but love it. It’s a beautiful film, with undeniably gorgeous visuals and an incredible soundtrack from Jeremy Schmidt of Vancouver band Black Mountain. His analogue synths gurgle and pound away at you, only adding to the eerie and uncomfortable dread-filled atmosphere.
Beyond the Black Rainbow will not be for everyone, even upon my second viewing I found myself wondering if it’s a film I enjoy more when I’m not viewing it than when I am. But ultimately, it’s a film unlike any you may ever have the chance to see again. It plays out like a stoned friend, tripping on mushrooms, trying to describe to you what a John Carpenter film would be like if it had been directed by Tarkovsky or Kubrick. That would be a frustrating conversation to engage in – but one that you might just find yourself wanting to re-visit as time passes on.