Anti-Gravity, Edible Flowers, and Hybrid Orchids
VESPER – a film by Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Samper – (limited spoilers)
We first see her searching for root vegetables in the mud, but that is not her primary occupation. A year after her mother disappeared, thirteen-year-old Vesper (Raffiella Chapman) keeps herself busy by caring for her father (Darius, played by Richard Brake), a wounded veteran on life support. In her spare time she genetically engineers new and sometimes sentient species. “This is the first one I created,” she tells Camellia (Rosy McEwen), after rescuing her from the tendrils of several rogue species whose origins Vesper had nothing to do with. “He’s sulking because I haven’t been here for a few days. He’s not the best looking, but he has character.” She introduces her new friend to more of her creations and explains: “I’m still learning. The first ones didn’t even survive, or they killed each other, but I’m getting closer to the right assembly with each generation.”
In what sort of world does Vesper live? To paraphrase the film’s introduction, humanity tried (some years previously) to prevent an ecological crisis by investing heavily in genetic technology. The approach failed. Engineered organisms escaped into the wild, and wiped out edible plants along with many animals and large populations of humans. An oligarchy survives in enclosed cities called Citadels, and humans in the countryside trade with the oligarchs for the seed they need to grow crops. But all seed traded by the Citadels is coded to produce only one harvest. (That last part might sound a bit familiar. In 2013, Bowman v. Monsanto Co. established that, if seeds or plants were patented, the saving of crop seeds from them for the purpose of growing subsequent crops constitutes patent infringement.)
In Vesper’s world, only flowering plants are affected by the environmental catastrophe. (We see many apparently unaltered pine trees.) Possibly because of the decrease in animal populations, the climate has not measurably worsened. Technology has advanced in non-botanical ways as well. The volleyball-sized ‘bot that helps Vesper care for her father hovers and flies, but how it does that is not mentioned. Some form of anti-gravity seems likely.
One of the commodities the Citadels need to obtain in trade is the blood of young humans. Vesper trades some of her blood to her Uncle Jonas (Eddie Marsan) in return for bacteria to fuel whatever power source is keeping her father Darius (whose fragility might parallel that of the hybrid orchid Lycastenaria Darius) alive, but Vesper cautions her uncle that there are limits to what she’ll do. (Jonas might be named after Helleborus niger HGC Jonas, a toxic perennial.)
VESPER: “I’m not going to become just another one of your breeders.”
JONAS: “You say it like it’s a dirty word. [pauses] Think you’re better than everyone?”
VESPER: “I have skills. I taught myself, and one day I’ll get out. But you, you’ll still be here, sucking your kids’ blood to trade for seeds.”
Camellia tells Vesper that everyone in the Citadels “wants to live forever”. If they are practical vampires and inject the stuff instead of ingesting it, the blood they trade for might help them do that. (According to the Americans’ National Institute on Aging, it is possible that chemicals found in young blood can revitalize aging bodies.)
In a particularly lovely scene, Vesper and Camellia look through an old book simply titled “Animals“, and discuss cats, owls, wolves, and parrots. The only animal Camellia says she has actually seen is the cat, so the others might be extinct. We see no birds in the course of the film, nor are any insects in evidence unless one counts the firefly-like creatures spit out by one of Vesper’s plant creations. Each of the main characters is named for a group of edible plants. The genus Vesper contains flowering plants from southwestern North America. The genus Camellia consists of evergreen flowering plants native to Asia.
Vesper’s mother played the zither, wrote songs, and sometimes sang. Two days before she left for parts unknown, she lost her voice and could no longer sing. Vesper believes her mother (who is never named) left to follow the Pilgrims, a mysterious group of people who hide their faces and (for reasons unknown) collect bits of abandoned technology. It is rumoured that this behaviour is caused by a virus. Vesper says her goal is to get to the Citadel, but she really wants to find her mother. Instead, she finds Camellia, who turns out to be just as abandoned and alone as she is. The film’s ending is satisfying, but one is left wanting to know what happens next. Does Vesper figure out what she really wants? Does Camellia find Vesper again?
Director Kristina Buožytė told Jennie Kermode of Eye For Film: “We wanted to create a utopia in a dystopia, so we decided to show a very bleak world and then to imagine that, okay, all the bad prognoses come true. What is it then? Let’s say that humanity goes back into a kind of future Middle Ages…and so Vesper, she’s lit this little flame, you know? This little light in the darkness that you can afterward extend to bring back life again.”
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