Darragh John McCabe sat down with Kristina Buožytė, to discuss her film Vanishing Waves, which recently screened as part of the IFI Lithuanian Film Focus.
Kristina Buožytė’s entourage is heavy-eyed and cranky, but her own smile, and eye contact, are unwavering. The Lithuanian director is in Dublin for a screening of her new film Vanishing Waves, which won best film at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in 2013. They’ve been travelling since 4am. The director’s manner defies fatigue – I suppose this trip is something of a victory lap, so it’s understandable, and invigorating to see. Her articulation of her ideas shares a tautness and economy with her film, in fact.
Vanishing Waves could tentatively be described as a sci-fi romance – tentatively for reasons discussed below. Lukas (Marius Jampolskis) is a neurology researcher who volunteers to participate in an experimental neuron transfer with Aurora (Jurga Jutaite), a coma patient. He enters her brain and finds himself getting obsessively involved with her inner life. The film is a remarkably accomplished second feature – Buožytė’s first, the Haneke-ish The Collectress, was released in 2008. Buožytė has been working on Vanishing Waves since then – I start by asking about the film’s development.
“The Collectress was for a Master’s degree. We made it very quickly. This film was different,” she says, “it was very ambitious. I spent a year and a half just working on the script with Bruno Samper, my collaborator.” I’m curious about the working relationship Buožytė has with Samper, a Frenchman with a background in visual art. He’s listed as Vanishing Waves‘ ‘creative director.’ It takes some tenacity to persevere with a project over such a long time, and over such a geographical distance – how did they make it work? Neuron transfer? “We wrote over Skype,” says Buožytė, cheerfully abashed. “Boundaries, territories, they just doesn’t exist anymore, with this technology.”
The division of labour between the pair goes a ways towards accounting for the film’s intriguing interplay between story and style – every plot development in Vanishing Waves is built around some striking set piece or other. Samper comes up with the visuals first – the house inside Aurora’s head, the lab with its striking basketweave-in-relief walls, the writhing orgy-creature that traps the couple – and the director comes up with the connections. “I deal with the mechanics,” is her self-deprecating self-description, “with where to go and how to get there. How to resolve the plot. But the film starts with the visuals.” I ask in particular about the house that seems to represent Auruora’s consciousness, a vision of psychological disintegration rendered in plywood – Alvar Alto via a glitchy 3D printer. “Oh, that house.” she says. “It took 5 months to come up with that. The inspiration was Psycho.”
This surprises me – Hitchcock’s spaces tend to be concrete and thoroughly excavated by the camera, the better to conceal their surprises in plain view. The interior of this house is dreamlike, all murkiness and uncertainty. No room looks quite the way it did the last time we entered it. But Buožytė meant the comparison to be a little more abstract than that. “Everything is an extension of Aurora,” the director says, “and the house is a character, it’s her. It’s a little of her memory, a little of her imagination, a little of her surroundings. It’s an image of how we remember.” Ah, of course. The theory of the three-tiered Bates house as a symbol of Norman’s super-ego, ego and id, respectively. I mention the monolithic sensory deprivation tank that Lukas lies in when he’s in Aurora’s mind, another important set piece. The director brightens. “Oh, that’s just Kubrick. My little reference to Kubrick. Like in Space Odyssey, it’s a symbol – he’s entering into the mystery, and there’s this box.”
With the mention of two big-time auteurs, I can’t contain myself. I toss out the weakest gambit in cultural journalism and ask about Buožytė’s big cinematic inspirations. She’s rumoured to be an Antonioni fan, and what about Altered States? And, of course, there’s Solaris. “Well, it’s hard to get away from visual influences…” Bad move. Her tone is caustic, chiding. You’re sitting in front of a filmmaker working somewhere east of Checkpoint Charlie and who uses sci-fi tropes to disentangle extreme psychological binds? Think twice before you mention Tarkovsky. “We’re living in a visual culture. I tried to comment on that. When I was a student, we heard a lot about Tarkovsky, watched his films many times…” A charged silence. “We never wanted to make that sort of film.”
Feeling chastised, I agree, a little over-eagerly. Of course not. Vanishing Waves moves so quickly, the plot working off of the rapid contraction and relaxation of tension, like the best Hollywood sci-fi. She cuts me off after that last remark. “It also wasn’t a goal to make a science fiction film. The film is about romance and desire, and all the science is real. We communicated with scientists and doctors from many different countries, so that everything about neuroscience, the way the machines work, it’s all how it would be done.” I think of Shane Carruth and Primer, but I’ve learnt my lesson and won’t try parsing the question of influence again.
Finally, I ask about Lithuania. Given Buožytė’s belief in the increasing fluidity of international boundaries, how does Vanishing Waves‘ reception at home compare with the enthusiastic reception it has gotten everywhere else? As well as the Jameson award, the film has done well at film festivals in Neuchâtel and Karlovy, and it even won the Silver Méliès, a prestigious pan-European award (for “sci-fi and fantastic” films, as it happens). She explains the situation to me. “In Lithuania, the main distribution company wouldn’t take the film. And yet other low-quality films are accepted – the sorts of films that play for maybe one or two months and disappear forever. It’s frustrating.” She says that there is a stylistic orthodoxy in Lithuania that young filmmakers need to challenge. “I believe that doing a film should never just be a repetition of old forms. ” Another intense pause. “I respect cinema too much.”
I suspect our interview is over. Harumphs come from the direction of the entourage, and eye-contact is finally broken in order to discreetly inspect a humming iPhone. There’s a Q&A after tonight’s screening, during which many categorical assumptions will surely have to be corrected and leading questions rebuked. Because she’s right – Vanishing Waves is too good to be easily classified. Buožytė and Samper are already at work on their next film, said to be an adaptation of The Prestige author Christopher Priest’s The Glamour. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another five years to see it.