When our communities break, do we fight, lie, trick, and steal? Help each other out? Or do we flee the situation completely? Vesper (2022) is a French-Lithuanian dystopian film directed by Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper. It tells a story of a young girl navigating an inhospitable Earth while dealing with classism, relationships, morality, and survival. After an effort to combat an ecological disaster using genetic engineering goes wrong, most life is destroyed by bioengineered bacterial organisms, plunging the planet into “the new dark ages.” The upper class hedges itself off in affluent areas called Citadels, where they enslave artificially created, humanoid creatures called Jugs. The Citadels control food and resources, so the poor are forced to scavenge for food and to rely on the wealthy for genetically modified seeds that yield only one harvest each.
Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) is a curious 13-year-old girl struggling to survive in a community where resources are scarce and monopolized. She is incredibly intelligent with a natural talent for biohacking, an ability that she utilizes throughout the movie to experiment on plants and produce food and medicine. Vesper has a genuine heart but is polluted by the naivety of youth. Her tenacity is tested throughout the movie, when the condition of her paralyzed father (Richard Brake) grows increasingly worse, and a mysterious stranger (Rosy McEwen) offers a poisonous promise that could hold the key to Vesper’s survival.
The movie begins in a dreary, muddy landscape with Vesper searching in the dirt for a vaguely root-like vegetable, dressed in a taupe cloak and a mask that covers her entire face. In this scene, the viewer is introduced to the film’s intense visuals and awe-inducing, dream-like environments; pulsing trees, pus-filled fungi, leech-like plants, and slimy maggots contrast starkly with bright blue caterpillars and dark, lush greenery. The juxtaposition of beauty and crudity ends up being a consistent theme throughout the film. Vesper has incredibly rich world-building that’s better than most higher-production sci-fi films that tend to be popular with American audiences; the creative detail of the set shows how much value can result from people pouring their pure time and energy into art. The directors were able to develop an aura of keen discomfort, where the viewer is drawn in by the beauty of the environment but forced to reckon with the morbidity of each scene.
The acting in this film is outstanding, and Chapman was able to portray her character particularly well. Vesper is a unique character—although wide-eyed and optimistic young female protagonists aren't rare, Vesper’s dystopian circumstances and dependence on genetic engineering make her distinctive and add dimension to the typical trope. In her performance, Chapman was able to embrace the strange norms of Vesper’s world in a way that wasn’t awkward. But while the realistic acting lends credibility to the narrative, the pacing is unnecessarily rushed and takes from the film’s impact. It was unfortunate to see a deep and emotional story build up during the first half of the movie but completely dissolve around the second half. The film’s underwhelming conclusion breaks the tension and suspense that had been back-breakingly built from the beginning in an immensely dissatisfying way, setting up the expectation of profundity but disappointing with something meek and unassuming.
An aspect of this movie that made it almost uncomfortable to watch was how well it reflected the class struggle in our world. The film portrays classism in a very straightforward way—the high-class Citadels maintain control over resources and opportunities for work, while those who live outside these bubbles of wealth are forced to scavenge for sustenance and must struggle with an exploit-or-be-exploited way of life. In this system, there’s a hierarchy of power and resources, in which less powerful people unwittingly contribute to the privileges of those in positions of power through the process of pure survival. In this way, the film manages to skillfully and uncannily reflect experiences in our world, where underprivileged people are provided with much less opportunity, and wealthy people end up benefiting from their labor.
So what should we do when our communities break? Vesper offers a course of action: we help each other. Although Vesper faced discouraging situations regularly, the moments where she showed compassion were the moments when she truly felt free in a world that tried to force her to abandon her morals. Her willingness to take risks in an environment that is not inherently survivable reveals the film’s insightful look into morality and mortality, and the direct portrayal of classism added a disturbingly realistic element to the story. This film is truly art; although it rushes itself at the end, the story is built up beautifully, with an emotional intensity to it that makes it almost hypnotic to watch. Overall, Vesper is an achingly vulnerable story that, despite the disappointing ending, managed to worm its way into my heart.
Vesper took place at the Grand Illusion Cinema on September 30 — October 6, 2022. For more information see here.