Cinema has a way of acting like an echo chamber. it locks us into a space where we are asked to face up to ourselves through the guise of others: Our own doubts, and fears projected on the screen, looking back at us, but feeling so foreign. Birds Of Neptune
, Steven Richter's second feature after his Portuguese-language debut Center Of Gravity
, locks us in a haunted landscape of guilt and apprehension, one that in its very best moments exhibits both a Kieslowskian beauty and a playful tenor reminiscent of the ponderous artists and vagabonds found in the works of Jacques Rivette. It's a striking balance of sensibilities, upheld by Britt Harris and Molly Elizabeth Parker's beguiling performances as the grieving sisters at the film's center.
Rachel (Harris) and Mona (Parker) have been living in their deceased parent's house on the edge of Portland. The young women take to opposite ends of expressing themselves in the arts. Rachel's work as an experimental composer and guitarist is introverted. She is bold but hides away in the basement. Mona's work as a burlesque dancer is extroverted. On stage she commands.
The sisters ponder through their existence, ghosts in their own house full of relics and past lives. The tragedies that have befallen this family remain peripheral for much of the film's running time, with Richter largely eschewing plot for a more feeling/sense-oriented experience that is indeed like one of Rachel's post-rock experiments. Conflict arises in the form of Mona's new lover Zach (Kurt Conroyd), the eponymous hipster, and Thor (Christian Blair), a quiet and kind high school kid who pines after Rachel.
While Birds Of Neptune
may be easy to dismiss on paper for its shoegaze qualities, it is in fact this dreamy, measured nature that makes the film so special and inviting. When the film finally does insist on further revealing some of its mysteries, such mood and aesthetic, so friendly in the way it drapes you in melancholy, actually helps brush past some rough edges.
As a director, Richter leads his characters into quite a few awkward
and uncomfortable places, indeed sometimes teetering on the brink of
horror. The gradual unfolding of Zach's masochistic tendencies is very
alarming, and suffocating, but Richter never goes overboard into a darkness that derails the film's greater sense of love. In fact these uglier places merely enhance the strange beauty on display.
Harris and Parker's performances as the troubled sisters compliment each other perfectly, their own home, and their own stagnating relationship offering the ideal escape from the truth, and from growing up. John J. Campbell's cinematography captures such northwestern malady with a graceful, twilight quality, while Michael Ward's editing adds another layer of mysticism to the proceedings.
It is in fact the music by Erik Blood and Kevin O'Conner, along with the sound design by Ryan Mauk, that may be the film's most crowning achievement. Totally immersive and of a great spirit, spiraling, looping, whispering across ours ears, this is something of the sisters, and of others... their dead parents, the mysterious boy so casually mentioned... the cult the sisters grew up in.
For if there is joy to be found in sorrow, then one must first listen. Rachel and Mona may not always be able to listen to themselves or each other, but it is through this deep dissonance that their souls begin to light up.
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