New York

Sue de Beer

Sue de Beer’s latest video, The Quickening, 2006, is a morality tale without a moral, a murder mystery with no solution. It’s set in Puritan New England—though de Beer seems unconcerned with creating the realist mise-en-scène of the conventional period piece. The movie puts incongruity to use as a narrative strategy: When John Denver launches into the second stanza of “The Eagle and the Hawk” following the unceremonious hanging of one of the characters, the music is jarring, but the effect is oddly felicitous.

The story of The Quickening is fairly simple, beginning and ending with the unexplained murder of the two female leads (both of whom are chased, stabbed, then hung by an unidentified creature). These events are themselves bookended by excerpts, narrated by the male character (Travis Jeppesen), from Joris Karl Huysmans’s 1903 preface to his 1884 novel À Rebours (Against Nature). In a voiceover immediately following the demise of the first victim, Annika Line Trost, Gina V. D’Orio reads a passage from Jonathan Edwards’s fiery sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), sternly excoriating the “wicked unbelievers,” and in the scene that follows, a mysterious, hypnotic machine triggers a dream sequence in which D’Orio dances with forest animals in a leafy clearing.

As those familiar with de Beer’s work might expect, The Quickening’s plot is less a motor for character development than elaborate window dressing for the artist’s dense referential games. Tropes and imagery from her previous works make appearances: The dancing fauna and falling glitter reprise sequences from Black Sun, 2005, while walls full of fanciful, obscure lettering and ornate floral sketches bring Hans und Grete, 2002–2003, to mind. The sound track and the recasting of Jeppesen, the male lead of Hans und Grete, also establish links to other works.

The Quickening is de Beer’s first single-channel video since her early experiments in the medium, Making Out with Myself, 1997, and the gorgeous, unsettling Loser, 1998; it is also her first foray outside adolescent ennui. Gone is the dialogue between two screens, the materialized play between split personalities and mirrored perspectives that marked her last four movies. For The Quickening, this fracture has been folded into the work’s internal structure, sublimated into psychedelic lighting and kaleidoscopic effects.

Vestiges of immaturity remain: The shaky, handheld camerawork illustrates de Beer’s stubborn resistance to critical exhortations to “grow up,” while the clumsy exaggeration of plosives in Jeppesen’s speech recalls high school theater. The movie walks the line between Edwards’s stoic certainty in God and punishment and Huysmans’s meandering path toward faith, while the mash-up that constitutes her particular style—Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) by way of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990–1991) with smatterings of Kenneth Anger and of Gregg Araki’s “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy” (1993–97)—equivocates between slick production and a winking crudeness.

De Beer’s irresolution is both her strength and her vulnerability, allowing her to float between genres without settling down, though it can also leave her work feeling aimless. Recurrent images of ships and Thanksgiving iconography offer a hint of colonial critique, but the suggestions are too fleeting. “Truly it can be said that beauty lies only in mystery. The beauty is the mystery,” Jeppesen concludes in the movie’s final two lines. If that’s true, de Beer has a lot of beauty on her hands, but she’s still unsure where to take it.

David Velasco