Not all fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time.” Sometimes it’s a date/location with a brief setup and a rewinding of time (Pan’s Labyrinth). Sometimes it’s a voiceover that establishes a premise of wonder and awe (Stardust). In the case of co-directors Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Samper’s Vesper, it opens with a slow unveiling of information to be read by the audience, indicating an unknown time but a specific location and ecological trauma. Much like any other tale, the audience is instantly clued into the rules of this particular fantasy and are made keenly aware that danger is omnipresent and that only the clever possess a chance of survival. An unexpectedly beautiful mix of the real and the imaginary, Vesper is a cautionary tale exploring bodily autonomy and agency, as well as classism and elitism. Though there are elements familiar from other dystopian stories, the execution here is particularly unique; down to its DNA.
Set within the New Dark Age, society is essentially split into two parts: those who live in a Citadel, cared for and protected, and those who live among the destroyed ecosystem, attempting to survive each day. Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) and her bed-ridden father Darius (Richard Brake) live outside the Citadels, bartering and trading, scavenging for anything potentially viable that Vesper might try to genetically augment for their use and to help keep the two of them out of the reach of her uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsan), who’s built a mini-empire on the backs of the vulnerable. Things begin to change for all three when Vesper discovers Camellia (Rosy McEwen) near the remnants of a crashed Citadel glider, creating an unexpected opportunity to shift the power away from the haves and back toward everyone.
Water shortages, food shortages, ecological horrors everywhere you look — this equally describes the fictional world Vesper inhabits as it does our own world today. Innovation contains the potential to save humankind, but the machine behind that innovation could destroy everything in the process. Dreadful and pessimistic a feeling as that might be, as long as profit supersedes community, there’s a greater chance of destruction for all when the desires of few are sought. In the case of the story from Buožytė, Samper, and Brian Clark (Compulsion), Vesper’s world is one in which there are carnivorous flora everywhere, creatures that are beautiful to observe and deadly to disturb, not to mention the fungi that pulse as though breathing. Each one is a result of genetic tampering gone awry. Each is the product of hubris. This world Buožytė, Samper, and Clark have created is dangerous for anyone without the means to survive it, be it technology or communal support. This notion creates a cascading affect in which a default class system is created leading from the top (residents of the Citadels) to the bottom (Vesper). There are those who live outside of the system, each with their own designations (drifters, junkers, bandits, pilgrims), and those who created a system for themselves, like Jonas. Vesper seeks to live outside these systems within one of her own making wherein she can create or build whatever she needs. But where Jonas created a system in which all who live with him abide by his rules, Vesper seeks something far more harmonious and collective. Through these characters and the elaborate systems constructed, Vesper invites the audience to consider how they would exist within such a world.
But if this is all Vesper is, some kind of Rorschach test for morality, there’d be far less dynamism within it. As performed by Chapman, Vesper isn’t the type to reject help, she’s merely not interested in the strings which frequently come with the aid. For instance, her father is only able to communicate via a refurbished drone whose antenna pick up a signal from a machine hooked to his brain. This was his gift from the Citadel after years of service. As this is Vesper’s story, the audience isn’t given much beyond this, leading them to draw a picture of the realities of this world: if you’re not useful, you’re in the way. Not content with this, Vesper dabbles with biotechnology so as to improve her father’s communication, and also as a means of trying to sever the parasitic connection between them and the Citadel. Keep in mind that Vesper is not without compassion. She merely wants to live on her own from them, which is why the opportunity Camellia brings contains the potential to shift everything. Therein, Vesper is a fairy tale not of a protagonist trying to unchain the world from a ruling class, but of seeking to change their own stars, to control their fate, to take back the agency stolen from them via an elaborate system where charity and goodness are weakness, where those with power would rather everything burn to the ground than give back the smallest of portions, and freedom for one threatens to bring freedom for all. These notions are rich and complex, supported not just by compelling performances from the small cast, but through a carefully constructed world in which everything has purpose to the story.
A film like Vesper could very well lean so hard on the science fiction elements that it would become false to observe. Instead, Buožytė and Samper blend the real with the fiction so well to the point where it’s often hard to distinguish between the two when up close. There are certainly times when the audience can tell that Darius’s drone is little more than CG and that wider shots contain digital elements (like the large octopus-like structures seen on the poster and in various locations of the film), but there’s also some incredible practical elements and close-up details that will make you wonder if somehow Buožytė and Samper introduced some new kind of flora into the shooting locations. Trees that appear to breathe, plants which reach out with plug-like tendrils to leech of bodies, and beautiful rose-colored bushes whose disturbance unleash a deadly threat. Each of these are so tangible in presentation, it’s some of the best CG work since Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009). Each of these also serves a purpose in conveying the harshness of the world outside the Citadels, the permanent terraforming done by the faceless masters of society long ago, their reach and influence still felt upon the general populace day-in and out. Though, my favorite (and most terrifying) piece of practical work comes in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment when the film shifts into the expected shoot-out sequence and the audience is given a glimpse of the Citadels’ forces. Of all the horrors that Vesper has had to endure, including threats to her personage as a breeder, the forces may be the worst, as their design implies something far worse than any pain one might conjure for themselves. Details like these are throughout Vesper, not all explained, not all spoon-fed to the audience, implying a much larger world with far greater consequences than what we, the audience, are told. That’s some brilliant world-building and storytelling on the part of Buožytė and Samper; a richness one often doesn’t get from their sci-fi.
On the surface, there’s plenty for a general audience member to enjoy. Intelligently crafted sets, beautiful costumes (not resplendent, just smartly constructed), and performances which will terrify in one moment and rend the heart the next. Underneath it all, though, in the space without explanation, exists a film that wants its audience to engage with deliberate cognition, to consider the relationships we have with each other, to ask if we’re raising up or holding down, to encourage us to question if we’ve noticed the rising classes taking control of our lives in not-so-innocuous ways. Innovation is fantastic when it improves lives for all, but when it holds down one of us, it holds us all down. The final scene of Vesper, wordless in dialogue but voluminous in action, is as great a declaration as there ever was in fiction — that sometimes, in order to shift our own stars, we must shift everyone’s.
Give them hell, Vesper. They deserve it.
Screening during Fantastic Fest 2022.
In theaters September 30th, 2022.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.