The Book of Vision is a narratively plodding but visually engaging philosophical journey.
While Terrence Malick only serves as a producer for The Book of Vision, Carlo S. Hintermann’s directorial narrative debut, one would be forgiven for mislabeling creative leads. Indeed, The Book of Vision is a symphony of mutual interests for the two collaborators, replete with heady philosophical and poetic exercises on film as both form and narrative, through use of fantastical imagery and time interpolation. Cementing these mutual thematic obsessions with a shared visual palate is cinematographer Jörg Widmer, who was Malick’s own cinematographer for A Hidden Life just a year prior. Thus, The Book of Vision is a film that is brimming with Malick’s idiosyncrasies and overall presentation but is lacking the visionary effect that his complete control would have brought. To be clear, The Book of Vision is Hintermann’s film before it’s Malick’s, but, unfortunately, the differences that make The Book of Vision Hintermann’s own are also its biggest flaws.
The Book of Vision follows the present-day tribulations of Eva (Lotte Verbeek), who’s abandoned her blossoming career to follow an obsessive thread about the modern medical and therapeutic sterility of doctor/patient relationships. Juxtaposing this is Elizabeth’s (also Lotte Verbeek) story, set in the 18th century, as she involves herself with Johan Anmuth (Charles Dance), a Prussian physician struggling to come to terms with the budding philosophical and medical practices of rationalism. For as complicated as this synopsis reads, The Book of Vision is a relatively reductive, fantastical think-piece on the intersection of medicalization, therapy, and personal autonomy.
Though Hintermann describes his film as blending the human condition into an “uninterrupted vortex” of mutual existences, the intercuts between Eva and Elizabeth’s experiences are disappointingly binary. The near comical, intellectual, romantic, and medical rigidity of Eva and Elizabeth’s peers and culture only frustratingly sever Hintermann’s already threadbare connections to any form of realism. Elizabeth, Eva, and particularly Anmuth thus function as impractically unproblematic shepherds of timeless wisdom rather than complex representations of historical culture and practitioners of the human experience. Essentially, Hintermann’s characters never feel real, only serving as expository vessels for grandiose gestures at female autonomy in both the modern and historical age. Hintermann also extends this binary into every facet: rigid tutors and unruly children, romantic women and militant men, therapeutic doctors and robotic surgeries, leaving Eva’s climatic journey towards individually chosen destiny and autonomy feeling less like a victorious revelation and more of a begrudging and reductive criticism of modern science, existence, and romance.
Though Hintermann’s commendable structure and sincere themes fail to resonate, The Book of Vision is visually impeccable. Widmer’s expressive camera movements, combined with the meticulously lavish production design of Elizabeth’s 18th century world ensures that not a frame of opportunity is wasted. In particular, Hintermann’s brief surrealist sequences are captivating, as the mystic echoes of ancient witchcraft are personified by oil covered wanderers and tree roots morph to reveal writhing human forms. Hintermann unfortunately struggles to bridge that very Malick-inspired marriage of surrealism with personal character experiences. It’s expected that these surrealist sequences are difficult to parse, but it’s frustrating when they seemingly require an impossible level of directorial attunement to fully keep up.
With The Book of Vision, Hintermann debuts with genuine gravitas. While his plotting and characters struggle to fully represent his vision, this is grand and expansive work. Similar in style to Malick’s own filmography, the hope is that Hintermann continues to delve into his musings on existentialism, ethics, and philosophy and in the future, brings us all a commendable and cohesive work. The foundation is readily evident; progress awaits.
The Book of Vision opened the Venice International Film Critics’ Week at the 77th Venice Film Festival on September 2, 2020.
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