Return of Suspicion
First published: May 2020
‘With cinema (in particular when working with archival material) there is the idea of making visible what is not or inventing a series of possible histories. In this sense I believe that the cinema is a séance with a shadow world and the filmmaker is the medium.’
- Dean Kavanagh, 2018
Kavanagh’s films have invaded the consciousness of experimental film, his first films shot in beautiful Irish landscape featuring his brother Leon Kavanagh have a stark eeriness about them. If we look at The Distance we find sounds of nature, Celtic music, camera tilts at once disorientating then purposeful. A tracking camera across a bridge, a sharp cut to water flowing. These images and sounds place us in the lively surroundings of a community on a bridge, the fluidity recalling the French New Wave. Starker emptier images of flowing water; a vortex, humanity through the realm of possibility, imagination. Kavanagh uses black and white as beautifully realised as anything by Philippe Garrel, internal thoughts if not feelings are captured through these images and sounds recalling Bela Tarr, even the cat in Detritus reminds us of Satantango.
Leon Kavanagh’s shadowy profile in The Distance, the seagulls weighing on his anxiety, his front profile is faceless, who are we in this world, faceless observers? As mysterious to ourselves as the objects and persons we look at from afar? Further stark imagery in Detritus surely inspired by Tarr and Losey’s The Go-Between opening; shots through rain-soaked windows, the outsider looking out at a bleak oblivion. The house reminiscent of the house in Donner’s The Caretaker where the young man lives is another character to add to the anxiety, the closed curtains, a prison of emptiness. Soft sounds of rain, a train passing Killiney Bay, Dun Laoghaire, the sky grey, impending doom on this poor loner. Blurry close-ups of grief and sorrow and memory, a filter of rain drops on the image, deep feeling over thought. Of course, with no dialogue on the soundtrack Kavanagh guides you with industrial noise, traffic, a strange clicking sound. Also dripping water signifying the calm before the storm it shows us a roof (which has seen its best days like the Irish economy of the time during recession (2008-2011). The concerned spectator looking down at the traffic below perhaps concerned for humanity during these dark times, one can only scratch the surface. Can one really interpret politics into experimental film? Bare in mind these are speculations on the intentions of a very talented filmmaker, in his early 20s at the time of filming, now 30, amassing 64 shorts and five feature films, he continues to observe the strangeness of human nature and possibility of imagination with 2017’s Animal Kingdom.
Return of Suspicion Kavanagh’s third feature is a detective story with clear influence from Lars von Trier’s debut feature Elements of Crime with stark imagery, innovative lighting, close-ups of a character smoking a cigarette. A murder illustrated through the shot of a hand stroking a dog, the hand which then moves to the grass stops moving. An investigation ensues by characters credited as older man (John Curran) and young man (Leon Kavanagh), Dean Kavanagh himself also makes an appearance (uncredited) as the possible murderer, then again are these three men one and the same? Blue skies, grey skies, lone figures, beautiful landscape. Other-worldly. The woods as a hazy void of discovery or never-ending mystery like Twin Peaks. Abstract sound; industrial noise, screams, nature, insects and what sounds like a banshee. Socrates spoke of ‘the wall of the cave, where we see all’, perhaps Kavanagh’s characters see all, and we just interpret. Many scenes involving investigations of light through trees and in rooms where the light takes up the background of the frame with the viewer stuck in the dark in the foreground, going deeper into a descent of liberation each time. Often the characters or shall we call them figures look out of windows as the light shines in on them, they’re like us watching the film, darkness into light. The light flickers like a laser beam during many moments of Return of Suspicion; movement, reflective sleep, memory, faces melt together, out of focus.
A blue twilight through windows; a haze of equilibrium. Swirling sounds, bright light; space travel, time travel, the figure who fell to earth, a vague past, no future, only the present. A scopophilic vision; investigation which yields into more rabbit holes of the abyss. Shadowy textures of grass and walkway planks; eerie shadows, German Expressionism. The woods as a cocoon of intimacy; tweed branches, blockades of justice, the mystery only unravels to a certain point. We the audience accept or reject the lightning bolt in Kavanagh’s brain to intricately weave his version of chaos theory; barbed, racing and pounding to its bitter end. A tennis racket shon to a wall, a web of intrigue pulsating for answers. A shot through a doorway with the kind of awkwardness and depth of field desired at a given moment by Fassbinder or Tarkovsky. Dive in as David Lynch would say; what do you find? a terrible sense of impending doom with undercurrents of a nightmare, the kind where as an observer you don’t feel the pain but you sense the dread. Calm moments in the woods and its outskirts rejuvenate the viewer to dive in again for the mystery never truly ends, each scene is take what you will. For a first impression has the sense of being left behind whilst the last well it’s nowhere to be found, the impressions simply grow through the scenes and on repeating viewings.
Kavanagh (2018) said of the film ‘Return of Suspicion pushes through these environs and toward the furthest reaches of this ‘narrative town’ and throughout we are confronted with a complete breakdown of image and sound. In this film we are presented with the disintegration of memory whereby narrative lines are spasmodically crossing and malfunctioning almost as if the ‘clean’ data has been replaced by the ‘corrupt’ data in a sort of operatic equivalent of a RAID array puncture.’ Air, fire and water touchstones of humanity, still photographs, ‘memory as a virus’ as Kavanagh (2018) says of the film. Stunning photography; flashing vibrant imagery, a close-up with echoes of Andrei Tarkovsky, images of nature and water (a trademark in Kavanagh’s work) echoing Jean-Luc Godard. A fixation on texture; skin in the opening sequence, what looks like sexual intercourse; the body as frail, skin tone and wrinkles sharply detailed, lucid organs giving us a pulsating sense of mortality, noise of intense humming, the vortex to take us away from this world into deeper waters of ambiguous psychology, mystery is the destination. Near the end; sharp detail of an index finger on a tree; finger as identity signifier of human touch, the tree as a reproductive organ, a vagina for which a figure licks. Archive 1970s pornography footage, the human as a destructive vessel, flickering light through the trees which somehow Kavanagh manages to represent as a vagina opening through visual majestic. He builds up crazily to this porno sequence; think of Lynch meets Pasolini. If the beginning gives us birth, the middle section death, the ending a sort of re-birth, the conjours of narrative rest in figments of the imagination, what Kavanagh is not showing us. The sound design can speak volumes in their fragments, a life once lived, faint traces remain. We see Curran and Dean Kavanagh as white faced figures in the woods (sperm?). Judgement day, darkness, a gun, a flower, a smile, human existence survives the black hole of depression and schizophrenic madness to live another day.
© Peter Larkin
Peter Larkin is an independent film critic living in Ireland.