Elysian (2011) – By Cary Conley

Elysian is derived from the Greek language; perhaps you have heard of "Elysian fields", the mythological "heaven" where Greek heroes and other virtuous souls went after death. This film, co-directed and co-produced by Neil Kellen and Lewis D. Chaney, first began as a result of Ridley Scott’s encouraging filmmakers to create a short film of three minutes duration with no more than six lines of dialogue. This challenge was a way for Scott to encourage filmmakers to move beyond mere dialogue and to tell a story in a purely visual sense. Kellen and Chaney, both already quite creative filmmakers in their own right, liked this idea and set about to make a short film with as little dialogue as possible. The result is Elysian, which offers no dialogue until the very end–and could have been told with absolutely none, if the filmmakers wanted, so visual is this story. While a bit longer than Scott’s original challenge of three minutes (Elysian clocks in at about 7 1/2 minutes of storytelling, and just over 9 minutes with credits), the film short is a lyrical exploration of life, and what may be beyond life, until its visceral ending.

The film opens with a beautiful young woman in a vibrant red dress frolicking in a pool of water. As she emerges from the water, her expression is one of surprise and joy. We see clips of this unknown woman as she rests peacefully, taking in the gorgeous landscape: sitting on a fountain, the veils of her dress draped over the Greco-style fountain (perhaps a hint at the etymology of the film’s title?); lying on the deep green of the grass, releasing a silver balloon into the air, watching the balloon rise into the atmosphere (a metaphor for the soul?); dancing joyfully in the meadows between mysterious fountains of water that seem to crop up for no reason. The young woman’s peaceful reverie is interrupted by the grating squeak of a rusty metal playground spinner. As the young woman glances at the spinning equipment, a young girl appears, slowly spinning along with the toy.

This transitional scene introduces the second character to the story, that of a young and obviously frightened girl, perhaps 10 or 11 (in reality, she is 11-year-old Ellie Parker, in her first-ever role, and one that won’t soon be forgotten). The young woman attempts to comfort the child, who clings to a dirty toy bear; the first interactions are tentative, but soon the child warms up to the woman and they play along some train tracks, in the meadow and in the midst of a lovely garden. But soon a mysterious stranger–an old man–is seen along with the girls. This is odd as neither the girls nor the man acknowledge the others. It’s as if the two groups exist in different planes of existence. The man is obviously concerned as he cannot get his cigarette lighter to work. Again and again, he tries to make the contraption light and the audience cannot miss this as it is shown in extreme close-up. Finally the man lights a cigarette, only to have it drop from his fingers as he falls asleep on a park bench, the girls in the background, exploring the garden.

The second major transition comes as the old man falls asleep and drops the cigarette he was so concerned with just a moment before. The film now moves from a world of fantasy and beauty to a darker world, punctuated with red lights and much more chaotic. What terrible thing has occurred to change this bright, sunny and glorious world to such a hellish state? Does the old man really play a role in this change of state? What will become of our two lovely young ladies? To tell more would be to give away the ending (and astute readers may have already guessed what’s going on) and lessen the impact of this wonderful film short. Suffice to say that Kellen and Chaney, in only a handful of minutes, are able to convey a myriad of emotions–from confusion and joy, to fear and happiness–perfectly. While the story seems a bit mysterious and perhaps even confusing at the outset, patience will reward the viewer with an ending both powerful as well as enlightening. The climax is frightening and heart-rending, but ultimately tender and uplifting.

Kellen and Chaney have done a remarkable job in designing a purely visual story full of symbolism. Some of the symbolism is easy to interpret while some may not be quite so obvious, but this isn’t an "art" film for the sake of being an art film. For viewers used to a simple story, missing some of the symbolism won’t impede your understanding of the film while fans of art films will enjoy watching the film several times in order to catch all of the nuances and symbolic touches. Regardless of which camp you are in, Elysian is quite enjoyable and works on multiple levels.

Water plays an important role in the film, and we see the protagonist, the young lady in red, immersed in water as the film opens. Water is a reoccurring motif as we also see mysterious fountains seemingly form right out of the meadow and the two girls eventually end up at the edge of a river (is this Styx?). Likewise, the young lady dressed all in red is meaningful as well; her red can be interpreted several different ways. The silver balloon being released as this young lady rests peacefully on the grass is also quite symbolic, as is the fact that the young girl is carrying a teddy bear. At first, the teddy bear just seems like something normal a child might carry to the playground, but by the end of the film, one understands that this is a sleeping toy…. Even the relationship that rapidly develops between young woman and little girl is meant to be reinterpreted by film’s end. The final scene is a perfect denouement as the teddy bear is handed to someone special–someone the young girl had playfully teased with the bear earlier in the film.

The cinematography is gorgeous, as is the lighting. There are numerous fantastic, artsy shots from the young lady’s red scarves spread across the fountain to the light shining on the water and even a shot of the two girls’ reflection as seen on a section of railroad track. Another strong point is Mina Fedora’s original musical score, both tender and haunting, but absolutely pitch perfect as an emotional gauge for the film.

This wonderful film has just been completed and is only available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cd0gNfmwD3E. I encourage everyone who is a film fan to see this short. My guess is that you won’t want to watch it just once, but several times, just to catch nuances you missed the first time. Kellen and Chaney have created a stunning visual piece of art that deserves to be seen. You can also check out their production company at www.keychain-productions.com as well as the site for their latest project, a big budget film called Eidolon at www.eidolonmovie.com.