By the time the title card of Beautiful Things appears, right before the credits roll, we understand. What we understand, I can’t really explain, but it certainly has an impact – a noetic sensation, similar to a psilocybin experience; what Werner Herzog would call ‘ecstatic truth’.
Giorgio Ferrero and Federico Biasin’s documentary/feature-film hybrid is a cinematic symphony about modernity. Structured into four sections, or movements: PETROLEUM, CARGO, MEASURE, and ASH, the film shows us creation, transport, testing/use, and destruction/rebirth as stages of capitalism. Each section has a distinctive tone, visual palette, and thematic significance to the overarching narrative. For each movement, we’re paired with a single male narrator – somebody who works (mostly) alone in a vast, industrial environment. We learn about their childhood, their work, and the reasons why they seek isolation or silence. As these storylines develop and coalesce in wonderous ways, the directors weave in a story of a married couple over time – gliding through their evolving household as they accrue more and more material goods.
Yet the most important characters in Beautiful Things are sound and vision. Biasin’s cinematography is designed to be seen on the biggest screen possible: wide-angle shots of huge vistas, sunsets, and imposing industrial behemoths of steel and concrete. Even when cataloguing the ordinary, such as an anechoic chamber, we get a sense of scale and wonder; of some huge, alien city from a golden-age science fiction movie. The blend of documentary and fiction also allows for an infusion of imagery – children’s toys are a recurring motif, as well as cultural artefacts (a Sonic Youth t-shirt, and a Trainspotting poster pop-up often). But it’s Ferrero’s score which makes a seismic impact. Taking cues from the environment – rotating oil pumps, spanners, the clicking of scientific instruments – Ferrero crafts immersive, binaural tracks that play in synchronisation with the mechanical processes documented onscreen. The effect is hypnotic, mesmerising. Even more impressive is the way in which these tracks also manage to be great! Like foot-tappingly, head-noddingly great – powerful, hopeful, and complex; filled with dissonance and syncopation like some post-industrial, post-modern form of jazz.
The movements build to a staggering, spine-tingling conclusion: a fully-realised seven-minute musical piece, created by objects of our character’s pasts, present, and futures; and followed by a stunning, emotional dance sequence by the couple whose house we have inhabited for the past 90 minutes. They dart and twirl around the empty, moonlit concourse of a shopping-mall: a temple, perhaps, to the material culture that we’ve fostered. Biasin follows them fluidly, gliding through the deserted corridors and past crowded shop windows, ending in a plastic funfair pool, which flashes in luminous shades of blue, red, and green. It’s filled with water, but we are reminded of the shades of oil shown previously – taken back, in a way, to the very root of consumer objects. Water, that most essential of things for humans to survive; and oil, the initial compound in man-made products.
Beautiful Things would be a masterpiece were it not for its third movement. Where does an anechoic chamber fit into the cycle of creation? We’ve seen the birth of material goods, their transport, and we end with their destruction (and rebirth as something else) – but why show us some sort of audio experimentation as the third instalment? We don’t really know what Belli (the scientist who works there) does, and why it’s important – it certainly doesn’t feel like his work has any tangible impact. The other men are individuals, or part of small teams, who are responsible for actions that nevertheless affect millions of people. Belli’s work appears to have a profound effect on nobody. The themes of silence and nothingness run throughout – yet this feels like a more literal exploration of these ideas that doesn’t quite fit the narrative.
Despite this infuriating lull, Beautiful Things is a transcendent, meaningful experience that reflects not on our product-obsessed culture, or how products are made (as some pretentious student project might), but on where products come from. Combining stunning, mesmerising cinematography with a unique, hypnotic surround-sound score, it’s an experience which has something to say, and says it staggeringly well.