VISUAL STORYTELLING IN
BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW
Panos Cosmatos's 2010 film Beyond the Black Rainbow is light in dialogue, purposefully eschewing a conventional narrative to create an atmospheric, dreamlike experience where most of its story is told audiovisually. Themes, character motivations, and more are communicated through the repeated use of colors, images, and how shots are framed, giving the film its own unique dialect of the visual language. Central to understanding this visual language is an understanding of its core concepts of self, strength, and where enlightenment comes from.
"WE ALL HAVE OTHER FORMS..."The Arboria Institute is a new age religious compound and laboratory that uses therapeutic methods, pharmacology, sensory deprivation, experimental technologies, and other techniques to reach enlightenment, founded by Dr. Mercurio Arboria. But what once may have been a philanthropic facility becomes a twisted mirror image of itself once Dr. Barry Nyle is in charge. Barry is controlling and power-crazed, warped beyond recognition by his years in the Institute, and he uses its many resources to isolate and torture Elena, a girl who exhibits psychic power and is, in reality, enlightened. Despite her power being the end goal of the Institute's research, Barry treats her like a prisoner, and seems to take perverse joy in making her miserable.
"We all have other forms, and your inner self needs another to complete it," says Barry Nyle in one of his routine torture/therapy sessions with Elena. He's trying to manipulate her into laying the secrets of her strength bare, but he is also revealing what "enlightenment" means in the context of the film. Enlightenment is something that happens when your inner Self is united with your other Self, forming a new and complete Self. Therefore enlightenment comes from a unification of the Self, of accepting and becoming all of one's parts.
This idea of "other forms" is also the foundation of the film's visual language. The Institute is full of reflective surfaces, turning nearly every room into a hall of mirrors. Characters are consistently shown alongside their reflections, showing the distance between their two Selves and their unenlightenment. Barry's wife Rosemary Arboria (top), has abandoned the search for truth in favor of smoking marijuana at home all day. The nurse Margo (middle) seems to not relate to the endeavor in any way, simply doing her job. And Elena is weakened by Barry's control and the machinery at his disposal — particularly the large, mysterious Pyramid that suppresses her psychic and mental abilities. Each of these characters are weak, separated from themselves, and at the mercy of Barry's twisted psychology, religion, anger, and misanthropy.
"I KNOW WHAT I AM."Where this visual idea becomes the most revealing is with the character of Dr. Barry Nyle himself. Barry rarely gets reflections, seen only a few times during torture/therapy or when arriving home. Instead, the camera often works to render him less-than-whole on the screen, framing him next to emptiness or cutting his head with the side of the frame. This gives us insight into Barry's character, and his standing in the world of enlightenment: Barry lacks Self. While others have other forms that they may be joined with, Barry does not. In fact, the physical Self he does have is damaged and must be maintained with a rigorous and mind-altering medicine plan. He will never reach enlightenment. And from this, his all-consuming hatred of Elena grows.
In the film's horrific and visually stunning "1966" sequence, we see Barry participate in a dangerous experiment with Dr. Arboria and his wife. The purpose of the experiment is for Barry to travel to the "other side" and unite with his other Self. During his trip, Barry sees truths and horrors beyond his comprehension, and his soul is annihilated. He returns from the journey little more than an animal, driven by primal desires for violence and sex and control. His body and mind have been torn apart by the experiment. He enters with two eyes, trying to unlock his third, but by the end, he is left with only one. The search for enlightenment has not only failed him, but taken from him and left him as less than what he was before.
A NEW AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENTElena goes through the same things Barry goes through but comes out more. She achieved enlightenment where Barry failed. She has strength of Self that Barry never will. But Barry has strength from different sources. He is backed by the power of symbols, the power of belief, the power of institution, and so he can control her and repress her with the systems that are already there, waiting to be guided by his vindictive hand.
Barry's manipulation of the Institute is personified in the Sentionaut, a sort-of human that waits motionless until it is activated via computer command. The Sentionaut's Self has been shattered to the point it cannot control itself, and so it lives forever in a room of mirrors, of infinite reflections.
But while Elena's strength is never truly gone even while suppressed, since its source lies within her, Barry's power is fickle and limited to the walls of the Institute. A symbol only has power if one gives power to it, so he must keep Elena in the confines of that institution to have any power over her at all. The second Elena escapes from its ideological prison, the symbol will have no effect on her. In fact, she uses her psychic strength to directly attack the Pyramid itself, the very symbol of the Arboria Institute and of Barry's control. She is able to free herself from her cell, and no longer reflected by the strength of the Pyramid, her different forms begin to fall in step with one another and she is returned to enlightenment. Finally Barry's control is revealed to be what it always was: a dead end acting like a road, a glass box pretending to be a prison; a symbol that confuses itself with what it represents.