BOKEH: Outside The Depth Of Field
Bokeh is a stripped down take on a dystopian apocalypse- and like the best sci-fi, offers a bleak commentary on modern society.
Bokeh, the new film directed by Geoffrey Orthwein and Andrew Sullivan, bears an intriguing title and a premise that can only be described as utterly delicious. What if you woke up one morning to discover that you and your partner were the last people on Earth? This is the opening gambit for lovers Jenai and Riley, twenty-something Americans vacationing in Iceland.
It’s the kind of idea that seems so simple, so elegant and yet potentially so fruitful, that its USP may be that you can’t quite believe that it hasn’t been done before. That’s a hallmark of genius of which anyone of a creative bent should be rightly jealous. You could say it has been touched on in different ways in poorly received treatments of Robinson Crusoe, for example, or I Am Legend. But as far as I’m aware, it has never been treated this directly as the subject of a film. For Crusoe, it’s only the island that is his world and I Am Legend’s Neville is merely the sole survivor in New York City. Bokeh proposes that Jenai and Riley, played by Maika Monroe and Matt O’Leary, are the last people on the entire planet.
The Weapon of Choice
I started getting nervous in the opening scenes of the film where a blissful holiday montage establishes the intimacy of the two protagonists. Cut at speed, this brief introduction of passionate young lovers revelling in the freedom of an exotic environment brought to mind Chekhov’s truism regarding a gun being shown in the first act of a play. However insignificant it may appear, the audience will be disappointed if the weapon is not fired in later scenes.
It’s one of those rules that seems to have a Newtonian certainty to it. Demanded by audience expectations or dictated by the unwritten laws of narrative fiction, who knows? Such things seem to have evolved as an unconscious, symbiotic collaboration between writer and audience. But even from the opening montage, after the initial arrival in Iceland, the weapon was brandished in full view of the camera: see this? We knew it was going to explode.
But we don’t live in a Newtonian universe any more, do we? The universe we now inhabit demands more complexity, more sophistication. Who wants old school gravity? It will only bring you down. Impressively, the film retains complete ambiguity regarding its main event: the mysterious bright light and wave of energy that Jenai witnesses alone, in the early hours of their first morning in Iceland, is never explained. Again, a masterstroke. There is always the temptation to feel one has to explain everything and to join all the dots, but often, as when the monsters are revealed in films such as The Babadook, that’s just where I cease to suspend my disbelief. Also, on another level, it’s a superb meta-narrative arc to make the end of the human race as inexplicable as its beginning.
It’s not just the event itself, but Jenai’s solitary observation of the event that is significant here. Not only is she alone when she witnesses the flash, but she doesn’t rush to communicate it to Riley either. It’s not completely clear that she remembers it at all but somehow the fact that we also see it from her perspective serves to bind us to her solitude in the immediate aftermath. This is the fault line splintering between their previously harmonious selves. From here on they drift apart and the inevitable separation gathers momentum as a counter movement to those halcyon opening scenes. The gun has been fired and we don’t yet know the extent of the wounds.
There are some beautiful shots of light saturated streets as the couple explore the desolate city. There are also lots of conversations between them, as they grapple (loosely) with what has happened overnight, but the dialogue is played over further unrelated scenes of them walking and looking into disparate distances. This feels like an attempt at stylistic innovation and although I would praise the ambition, the element of profundity imparted with this technique appears dislocated and just as the central characters are thrust into peril, we are suddenly excluded from the intimacy we shared with them at the start of the film.
Some of the cinematography is stunning and works best when the extraordinary landscape is allowed to simply unfold on the screen. The less is more strategy works well here and as an aesthetic choice it’s a technique often undervalued in modern cinema. The church steeple rising up behind their acquired car like a space rocket about to launch is a memorable moment. Was it intentional or serendipitous? Either way, it’s a notable scene.
Lingering shots of Jenai, in retro woollens, trailing her hand against the heads of flowers as she wanders through the tundra, appear derivative of Terence Malick. Later on, a scene at a decaying, abandoned military aeroplane places us in Ballard territory as we are confronted with relics of previous eras of civilisation reduced to impotence.
In terms of abandoned places, on paper this film might appeal to many devotees of ruin porn and psycho-geography yet the shots of abandoned water parks, sculpture gardens and terminals don’t have the poignancy or redolence of transitory human existence that is articulated in last year’s Homo Sapiens – albeit a very different film.
Heaven and Hell?
The dialogue is fit for purpose, but like the performances, it appears designed to be deliberately, stylistically perfunctory. There is something flat about the piece overall as a spectacle, as though it is infused with the midnight sun – the light is there but without the luminescence you might expect. What should be a great opportunity for drama, existential quandary on an epic scale, is squandered as time passes by.
And so it continues. Maybe this is just more realistic should such a scenario ensue? We don’t live in 1940’s Paris after all. Riley and Jenai are not Sartre and de Beauvoir. Maybe two survivors would be simply thrilled to “acquire” all those consumer goods they’d always wanted? Maybe it was not the rest of the human race but Riley and Jenai who disappeared, ending up in a tilted, consumerist afterlife. Heaven and hell. And there we have the ambivalence, pertaining exactly to the human condition, that the film hints at, yet circles around.
Dystopian fiction, particularly myths of the near future, reveals truths about the world we live in now – often in a more powerful way than works of fiction in books or films dealing explicitly with contemporary life can manage. If that is so, then what this film articulates about contemporary, western life is grim indeed. As the film continued I began to realise that surely there being only two people left on Earth is simply the flipside of the ultra-connected world in which we currently live.
The question it poses – but the one that the characters, remarkably, don’t ask themselves – is who would we be if there was no-one left with which to communicate? Once we remove the many masks, the avatars, the profiles, the plurality that is our online identity, is there anything of substance left beneath?
In that sense, whereas the film falls short of articulating something more profound about the human condition from its fantastic premise, Bokeh is a film that is very much of its time. Bokeh is a photographic term. There can be good or bad Bokeh invoked as aesthetic criteria to describe the effect of all that is out of focus in an image. The key cataclysmic event in this film happens outside the depth of field and is never brought into focus, a challenging problem for any storyteller, yet here to the director and writers’ credit, it emerges as a triumph of narrative. However, the depth of field itself is ultimately too shallow, the focus not quite tight enough.
Does the plight of Jenai and Riley ring true to you? What would be your immediate thoughts if you were one of the last two people on Earth?
Bokeh is released in US theaters and on VOD on 24th March 2017.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.