The old Greeks had some of the most striking and illustrative ways of explaining the world. In their cosmos, titans, gods and men were constantly engaging in a great struggle that bore one tragedy after the next. These myths were boosted by the genius of great writers such as Homer, Hesiod and Apollonios, who captured the brutal and absorbing tales vividly on paper and thus enabled them to be preserved. It’s pretty common that Greek mythology is used as point of reference in art, which makes sense, given that it shaped Western art in more than just a few ways. It additionally poses some sort of archaic, self contained and detailed otherworld, grappling with human conflicts in a fascinating manner, even though obviously outdated.
So it isn’t completely innovative that Austrian director and screenwriter Wolfgang Fischer intentionally uses the implications of his sophomore feature’s title, Styx —the stream and deity which separates the land of the living and the land of the dead in the realm of Greek mythology —to create a subtextual tension that illustrates the film’s stakes. The film follows the journey of Rike, a middle-aged Austrian woman and doctor, who sets out on a lone journey to an island in the middle of the Atlantic and eventually encounters an overloaded and critically damaged refugee ship, whose appearance puts an end to her carefree adventure.
The first 30 minutes of Styx are an almost-dialogue-less, audacious and utterly absorbing piece of high-performance filmmaking, whic seem to announce Fischer as a director to look out for. In collaboration with cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels, Fischer creates a dense and inward visual landscape, consisting of a subtle, but effective, blend of traditionally documentarian and dramatic images. It’s a great recent example of digital cinematography toying with its possibilities, which results in an otherworldly, impressionist mood that gives the journey the archaic vibe the title suggests.
This first act is all audiovisual drive, with barely any narrative beats to expand on or hinder the images and their energy. This changes as soon as Rike discovers the refugee ship, which poses a jarring contrast to the deliberate seclusion she has put herself in. The film slowly thickens in plot, and at first Fischer manages to shift gears without any major bumps. The images and the sound design by the relatively unknown duo, Uwe Dresch and Ándre Zimmermann, remain impressive and the newly-introduced dynamics of the plot give stage to some surprisingly sober dramatic moments. When you break it down, what Styx does with this shift and its overall narrative arc, is to tell the story of a Western woman’s uncomfortable awakening from a dream. The waters of the Styx, at first mysterious and intriguing, transform into something very severe and real. It’s an obvious allegory on the Western relation to tragedy, as well as one on the detachment and the contrasting and terrifying helplessness during a rare confrontation.
On first glance, this narrative seems immensely intriguing in face of the original approach it takes and, in theory, the filmmaking, fueled by its observationalist narrative development and thoroughly engaging pacing, fits the bill to make it work. But as the story goes on, there is an uncomfortable feeling in one’s gut that is hard to point out at first. Fischer’s choice of selecting such a horrifying, current situation in such visceral and unsentimental detail, just to tell the story of a woman disconnected from reality, has a very bitter taste to it. It’s a grotesque feeling of letdown that arises as the film comes to a close, not only because of one puzzling and blatant use of a hijab symbolism, but because of the crushed hope that the film, so immaculate in many aspects, might still find its way.
One could argue that Styx is merely observationalist and has its merits in withdrawing from greater messages and instead tells a story of helplessness and tragedy that Western audiences will surely identify with. But in the end there could’ve been so many other ways than tackling a situation of such high sensitivity to tell this story. The film’s final images are devoid of hope and while it isn’t necessarily always the filmmakers job to generate that, it feels specifically disappointing—this hopelessness isn’t even from the perspective of someone who actually is trapped on a boat, unable to swim, scared, hungry and thirsty. It’s from the perspective of a white woman, with her own boat and an ability to choose, who is unwillingly involved in questions of life and death and will never forget them, but also won’t ever again be confronted with a hardship close to the one of a refugee on a boat. There’s no need to play down Rike’s surely traumatized state of mind, but Styx ends up feeling like an aimless pity party and it’s frustrating to remember that it seemed so sublime at first.