After making several very intriguing short films, Belgian filmmaker Olivier Smolders finally advances into feature-length filmmaking, and the results are very satisfying for fans of surreal cinema.
It's all-too easy (and simplistic) to describe Smolders as a Belgian David Lynch; each director has his own visual and character fetishes, and if both have anything in common, it's realizing works that are very reflective of each director's unique and distinct style.
In Black Night, Smolders obsesses on aspects that have been completely inverted: Oscar, an entomologist who breeds and euthanizes rare insects for a museum's collection, lives in a gloomy world perpetually enshrouded in darkness from a solar eclipse that occasionally inverts and bathes his world in painfully bright sunlight.
Time has no meaning, and there's no real narrative strand that's anchored to give us a sign as to what aspects of Oscar's world are current. Smolders consistent interweaves motifs of macro-photographed insects and narrative threads that seem to come from Oscar's past.
What's partially discernible is Oscar's career, and his wonky sanity that's tormented by the brutal mauling of his sister by a wolf when they were young children, as recounted in dreams conjured by a strange therapist using an apparatus inserted over Oscar's ear. We also know he's transferred his father's own fascination of himself and his sister as family experiments in old home movies towards his insects, which Oscar films with his father's antique camera.
The breeding of surreal insects with extreme features – walking sticks, horned beetles – is later transferred to a strange woman who invades Oscar's world, and through an insect-like transformation, becomes a kind of deadly preying mantis, and starts to disrupt whatever stability Oscar has retained through routine, repetition, and a severely remote personality.
Shot on high-def video, Black Night looks gorgeous, and the macro footage of insects is truly beautiful. Smolders' style involves details and nuances, and he seems to obsess on the textures and sounds made by bizarre insects without resorting to the familiar shock footage of grotesque maws, stylized close-ups, and searing sound effects of conventional horror films.
The film's Dolby 5.1 mix is very dynamic, and there's some lovely choral music interwoven with discrete and unsettling sound design.
Like Lynch's Lost Highway, Black Night is a puzzle film without concrete explanations, although Smolders does give us enough clues to piece together a subjective summary of Oscar's life, making the surreal episodes organic extremes of a man trapped in a banal, self-repressed existence.
Cult Epics have included some nice supportive extras that include a lengthy interview with the director; some behind-the-scenes footage of the gorgeous sets, Smolders' use of real insects and animals, and the lighthearted tone between director and actors; and numerous deleted scenes (of which a few scenes are quite informative, and others are either redundant – like a visit by police to Oscar's apartment – or too oblique).
The director's own articulate explanation of what he attempted to realize in Black Night is something Lynch rarely details when discussing his own work. Also unique is “About Black Night,” a featurette made by Smolders to explain Belgium 's colonial roots in Africa , its repercussions on Belgian culture, and why the film's emphasis on the exotic is buried so deeply in the film's imagery.
Smolders is a surreal, fascinating filmmaker whose work is worth tracking down on DVD. His simple yet unsettling film Adoration (1987) appeared on Cult Epics' Cinema of Death short film anthology, and that film also appears in a collection of 10 films by Smolders called Spiritual Exercises, which is also worth acquiring. Smolders also provides edited samples and vocal summary in the promo short, “Spiritual Exercises,” on the Black Night DVD.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan