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Beyond The Black Rainbow

November 2, 2012

I had intended to write about this film months ago but failed to for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that I recently became a father for the first time and now intend to channel my creative energies toward shaping and nurturing the wee spongy mind of my infant son. However, I will try to rectify this hideous blog dormancy as best I can.

Made in 2010 but shown in a limited capacity in various festivals prior to its home release, Beyond the Black Rainbow is the debut feature from the superbly named Canadian filmmaker Panos Cosmatos. It was made for very little money, and seems to have made a whole lot less in turn, which is unfortunate given that there aren’t very many films at all that bother to look or sound this good in any given year. It is not for everyone*, and will likely prove an infuriating film to those for whom the all-pervasive aesthetic on display is neither seductive nor engaging, but for the appropriate audience (in which I enthusiastically place myself) it is a gorgeous and visionary cinematic delight.

Beyond the Black Rainbow opens as a promotional video for the Arboria Institute, as Dr. Mercurio Arboria introduces himself and the institution in which the film is set. The doctor is styled as a guru of yesteryear, deliberately reminiscent of such New Age scientist figures as Timothy Leary, albeit here with the darker edge of a cult leader. Before long, we are shown the institute itself and its head researcher and erstwhile Arboria disciple, Dr. Barry Nyle. The sinister Nyle is studying or treating what appears to be a patient at the institute, the near-catatonic Elena, a silent anguished girl who refuses to communicate with Nyle and who seems to be sadistically tormented by him. It is hinted that Elena possesses some kind of psychic, telekinetic power that is somehow kept subdued by means of a glowing tetrahedron pyramid in another level of Arboria, the corridors and rooms of which are also frequently roamed by silent “Sentionauts” (comparisons to Daft Punk characters is both unavoidable and fair), amongst other unusual features and oddities. Dark secrets are revealed pertaining to Dr. Nyle’s past and the precise nature of his work with the largely absent Dr. Arboria as Elena steadily prepares to escape the insidious institute in which she is held prisoner, with an increasingly unhinged Nyle in pursuit.

Now the above plot outline serves as something of a film review convention but it is important to note that a linear plot is not a primary concern for this film. The loaded term “art house” could probably be applied here, certainly in terms of the challenging pacing and lack of dialogue, but, at the same time, what has been crafted onscreen serves as a deft homage to obscure science fiction cinema of the late 70s and early 80s, specifically in terms of design and execution. This isn’t really a pastiche or hip, latter-day “mash-up”, however, as it has been far too meticulously and honestly made to be dismissed as such. Beyond the Black Rainbow looks fantastic, with masterful compositions that hypnotize and oppress in equal measure. In addition, another major triumph is the contribution of Jeremy Schmidt who composed and performed the score. Schmidt is a Canadian musician who specializes in composing music on old analogue synthesizers, evoking the kind of synth and electronic sound found in 70s and 80s rock music. He seems to have been the perfect choice to provide the score given that his approach to music parallels exactly what Panos Cosmatos has done with the film.

“I grew up during a time when synthesized and electronic sound was still relatively new in popular culture and it was very much identifying as being the sound of the future,” 36-year-old Schmidt explains. “But it’s now very much the sound of the past, or at least redolent of an idea that was trying to convey something futuristic, where it reminds you of a past impression of what the future might look like.”

That statement is very much applicable to the complete aesthetic of Beyond the Black Rainbow, a past impression of what the future might look like. It features phenomenal and spellbinding music that is immensely effective in entrancing the viewer alongside the retro-chic, psychedelic visuals.

Cosmatos is dealing in pure immersive atmosphere here and has been truly bold in aiming the appeal of this piece narrowly at what can only be a small amount of people for whom the effect of watching Beyond the Black Rainbow will trigger a kind of entranced nostalgia for such films of that era. This felt to me like the impregnable but intriguing experience of stumbling across snippets and short moments from sci-fi movies in childhood, glimpsed on late-night channels, not having any fully formed understanding of the narrative on display but being nonetheless struck by the visuals and otherworldly fragments. Admittedly, for those without a similarly subjective affinity for such films, the appeal of Cosmatos’ effort here might prove decidedly limited. Although you may encounter reviews where Beyond the Black Rainbow has been lazily written off as simply a movie to trip balls to man, there are greater rewards to be had for those willing to engage with it. Casual viewers ought to be forewarned, however, they may want to sit this one out.

(*My wife still hasn’t forgiven me for putting her through a viewing of this film.)

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4 comments

  1. “This felt to me like the impregnable but intriguing experience of stumbling across snippets and short moments from sci-fi movies in childhood, glimpsed on late-night channels, not having any fully formed understanding of the narrative on display but being nonetheless struck by the visuals and otherworldly fragments.”

    Well put. I think it could become less impregnable upon repeat viewings, though as much as I was wrapped up in the atmosphere, which was incredibly rich, it’s also extremely claustrophobic (until that final shot – the first shot in the WHOLE MOVIE that isn’t a close-up or medium shot) which makes it hard for me to want to watch again. But there were some jaw-dropping moments, visually. (Barry’s experience inside that oily black fluid!!!) Many of those images have been burned into my mind forever and I’m perfectly cool with that.

    It reminded me of Ti West’s House of the Devil (which is a pretty cool flick, by the way – it’s got Tom Noonan!) in the sense that its retro-style was not just for kicks, like a majority of the “grindhouse” wannabes that have cropped up recently. It genuinely felt like it was from that era in every way.


  2. Oh and I should amend the above comment about how the movie is all close-up and medium shots. Of course there are other types of shots in the movie, but the final shot definitely exudes a feeling of openness that NO other shot in the movie did and that’s obviously the point. They did a great job of making you feel shut-in the whole time.


  3. Thanks, I’ll have to try and give House of the Devil a look.


  4. Ditto on House of the Devil. Without spoiling anything, I was very impressed.



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