Rated PG; however, be advised that, as a nature documentary, various harrowing elements are presented.
Victor Kossakovsky’s documentary Aquarela is unlike anything you’ve seen before within the section of nature-focused films. Not only is it shot at 96 frames-per-second, a high enough frame rate to catch all the exquisite details, and contains a frequent pulse-pounding score composed by Apocalyptica founder Eicca Toppinen, but the focal point is nature itself, specifically water. Though aspects of human interaction with water formations throughout the globe are included, they’re primarily included for scale and nothing more. Drawing from the translation of its name, “watercolor,” Aquarela features no real narrative as it moves languidly from beginning to end. In this way, Aquarela is an absolutely mesmerizing piece of cinema.
If you’re unfamiliar with Aquarela, that’s likely because it began screening in festivals in 2018 before getting a U.S. limited release in August 2019 and a slow roll-out in other countries. The shame of the release is that it’s a film built for the big screen. Kossakovsky utilizes various water formations to tell a story that’s as apolitical as it can be. The reason for this, as mentioned, is that there’s no discernable narrative beyond the formations themselves. At the start, it’s an ice lake that the daring (or stupid, depending on your philosophy) attempt to drive over, resulting in the same series of rescuers coming out to pull vehicles, and sometimes their occupants, out of the frigid water. The camera is constantly at a great distance here so that the audience can see the full scope of the ice lake, making the humans shown appear miniature in size. Truly, this opening sequence, as it meanders along without hint or preview as to location or intent, is a strange kind of hilarious. That is until the rescue team sets up about trying to save someone trapped under the ice. Then the cold truth comes to bear, removing any sense of silliness and naïve wonder, as the unsympathetic water swallows those who challenge its strength and misunderstand its deadliness.
This approach is frequent throughout Aquarela, as though Kossakovsky wants the audience to fall under the film’s meditative spell before snapping them back to reality. This is both an aspect of strength and weakness within the film. Consider the sequence after the ice lake wherein Kossakovsky transitions to a series of glaciers. One can’t help but be filled with wonder and awe as the majestic and beautiful behemoths rise and fall in the water like napping sea creatures calmly breathing in and out with each rise and fall of the water. The audience is given no sense of location or relation to the previous sequence, nor is any explanation provided as to why the glaciers are breaking apart. Without certain contextual elements, the audience can only guess if what’s occurring is natural or human-influenced. In this way, the meditation is broken as the audience must work a problem of orientation and intent, rather than taking in the presentation. This is, of course, compounded when a boat is shown sailing among the glaciers. At first, like the humans on the lake, this seems to be a means of creating scale, a means of showing off just how gargantuan the glaciers are relative to the boat, i.e. humanity. The size comparison does wonders in instilling a sense of smallness in comparison to water’s girth, yet by returning to the boat later, a growing sense of confusion begins. The audience is never introduced to the two-person crew, yet they become a brief focus as a storm rages upon them. Unless the audience is familiar with boating, Kossakovsky requires the audience to watch, clueless as what’s happening or why. With the wind raging, rain pelting, and waves rising and falling quickly, the audience knows they are in the midst of a storm, but then why not show us the storm against the boat? Give us the scale, the same sense of contrast of humanity and nature which is so constant throughout other areas of the film. Instead, the camera lingers upon the crew, engaging in the same actions over and over without explanation. Turns out, thanks to an interview with Kossakovsky and Anne Thompson of IndieWire, that boat captain Hayat Mokehnache and crew member Peter Madej were caught in the middle of one of the worst storms of the last 100 years as they journeyed from Portugal to Greenland. This dissociation from humanity does force the audience to focus in on events, trying to discern for themselves a logic that, for better or worse, can best be described as fluid. Given no heading or reference points, the audience has no choice but to either dig their heels in with stubborn indignation or give themselves over to Kossakovsky’s visual painting.
Even with the short-comings of the philosophical narrative, Kossakovsky’s crafted an inescapable experience for the senses. The high frame rates used in filming allow the audience to see all the tiny details in everything from cresting waves to glaciers to waterfalls to underwater currents. Being able to capture the intricate characteristics of the underseen or unknown communicate just how oxymoronic water is with its complex simplicity, its dangerous beauty. The score composed by Toppinen is more than atmospheric, it’s transportive. The natural sounds of water are enough to lull an audience to rest, whereas Toppinen’s score, with his pounding cello, instills a greater sense of magnitude of nature’s power. Even on a home release, where my 65-inch plasma and over 10-year surround sound made the scope of the film feel large, it’s nowhere near what Kossakovsky intended as he aimed for Dolby Atmos sound and a 30 x 70 foot screen. While move-lovers may opt for the latest in Dolby tech, it’s less likely that the majority of home theaters will recreate Kossakovsky’s vision. This alone is heartbreaking. What aids in this is the scarcity of bonus features included in the home release because Aquarela begs to be explored once its finished. A film presented without narrative, the audience is left to fill in their own presumptions about relationships, geography, and more. Despite the foraging for details the audience will be forced to endure due to contextual disorientation, Kossakovsky’s Aquarela succeeds in capturing the majesty and dangerous wonder inherent in water, mesmerizing audiences from start to finish.
Available on Blu-ray, VOD, and digital beginning November 12th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.