Fantasia 2011: ‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ is a hallucinatory, audacious, and challenging debut

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Beyond the Black Rainbow

Written by Panos Cosmatos

Directed by Panos Cosmatos

Canada, 2011

There’s been a welcome rush of audacious first features recently – Evan Glodell’s incendiary Bellflower and Daniel Cockburn’s witty, touching thought experiment You Are Here spring to mind, and now so does Panos Cosmatos’s gloriously odd Beyond the Black Rainbow, a low-budget sci-fi wonder that, like those other debuts, synthesizes a set of influences in order to present a cinematic vision that is startling in its confidence. It’s not as easy to love as those films, and its extreme aestheticism will alienate many (or even most) viewers, but that it is beautifully realized is impossible to deny.

Thanks to Rainbow‘s hallucinogenic nature, plot synopses should be taken with a grain of salt. After an opening infomercial establishes the sinister new-age tone, an intertitle informs us of the year (1983) and then we’re thrust into the belly of the radiant compound we spend almost the entirety of the film encased in. There, 17-year-old Elena (Eva Allan) is held literally under glass by Barry (the very creepy Michael Rogers), a scientist/doctor/father figure who regularly performs thought experiments on the girl in order to test her emotional responses – but she never speaks, only crying silently. This much is established early on, but throughout the film Cosmatos also inserts telekinesis, drug experimentation, Ronald Reagan, inter-dimensional travel, and other eccentricities best left unrevealed.

Cosmatos’s creation will alienate a great many viewers with its exceedingly patient pacing, outrageous visual style, and cryptic plot and characters, but those willing to go along with the madness will find much to enjoy and appreciate. The “1966” sequence, in particular, is like nothing else in recent genre-movie history, a high-contrast nightmare of abstract humanoid movement and unknowable action. Yet for all of the outrageous elements on display, Rainbow is even stranger for clearly being earthbound – sequences outside the compound make clear that this all takes place on the same banal planet we inhabit, and the unusual physical qualities of the film seem to dissipate when we enter these “normal” spaces.

Another key element to the film’s oddball charm is the deeply hypnotic analog synth score courtesy of Jeremy Schmidt of stoner-rock band Black Mountain. Highly – and surely deliberately – reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early scores, Schmidt’s work is in perfect synchronicity with Cosmatos’s long-take aesthetic and stripped-down, vacuum-sealed set design.

In a year that’s already had no shortage of confident debuts, Rainbow might not be the most fully-formed, but it’s almost certainly the most audacious. A neon nightmare that demands repeat viewings to fully grasp (if not comprehend), it announces Cosmatos as one of the most unique cinematic voices in recent Canadian history. Here’s hoping he gets to inflict even greater cinematic oddities in the near future.

Simon Howell

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