MIFF 2022: Neptune Frost Review
“I was in control of my instrument, on a dance floor, free of fear.”
Science fiction allows for a very broad range of themes and styles, and the hypnotic Neptune Frost finds itself a wholly unique flavour. An Afrofuturist musical, certainly a genre I hadn’t dipped into before this film, but one that built beautifully on its themes and had such striking style. Neptune Frost directors Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams have deservedly won the ‘Bright Horizons’ award from VicScreen, and the film is a standout even amongst the incredibly colourful and creative lineup at MIFF this year.
In a mesmerizing and dreamlike time and space shifting narrative, we find in the past, present, and future Rwanda a young coltan miner in Matalusa. There are abusive guards on watch, and the miners are more slaves than employees. But there’s a beat to them, their hearts filled with the rhythmic thrum of revolution, and after his brother is murdered by a guard, Matalusa wanders through a drifting dream state out into the wilds. The avant-garde Afrofuturism begins in earnest here, as Matalusa eventually encounters an encampment of those trying to escape the tyranny of ‘The Authority,’ and most importantly the enigmatic Neptune Frost; an intersex hacker with a deep connection to technology at large.
Anti-Imperialism is an important central structure to Neptune Frost. There’s reference to a previous, but still ever looming war, and the very active presence of an oppressive ruling class and aggressive police force. There’s rebellion brewing in these disparate individuals who come together in an uprising against ‘The Authority,’ and the connection made between Neptune Frost and Matalusa who finds himself in a messiah role fills the hearts of the rebels with hope. The story takes shape as a mixture of cinematic, musical, and dance, that all come together to create a vivid painting of injustice and revolutionary spirit.
A lot of creative wordplay is used, not just in the poetic songs but also in the character names. There’s a man named Psychology who debates the ideas and ideals of the world at large as well as their place within it. There’s Innocent, a man torn between the two sides and who may be anything but his namesake. And of course there’s Matalusa, where they play with the idea of ‘Matalusa, Martyr Loser,’ as well as the more blunt ‘Martin Luther’ spin. The clever wordplay adds to the whole strange experience; Neptune Frost is part play, part musical, part fable.
Neptune Frost is beautiful and vibrant, colours popping against the more muted landscapes and a great style with the mixture of technology and decoration. It’s got a jank to the look, a messiness, that feels perfect. The wardrobe is similarly phenomenal, with bizarre-yet-captivating costumes capturing that Afrofuturist aesthetic. ‘Wheel-man’ is a highlight of this, with a large contraption somewhere between wings and helicopter blades made from what looks like welded together bike parts, it’s surreal and very impressive visually. Matalusa also gets his own very unique look, rocking a jacket covered with keys from a keyboard and pieces of technology as accessories.
The characters often reference the dream that drew them together: the dream of Matalusa’s brother Tekno. It’s dreams that bring them together, and a moment of community and upheaval that feels like dreams coming true. Adding to the dreamlike quality to the film is the musical side of things. Neptune Frost builds an enthralling energy between the larger group performances and the wandering and lonely solo fills from Neptune (Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo) and Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse). Some of the musical numbers go on a little long, especially a few of the poetic jams with an anti-Imperialist angle to them. They’re beautifully written and performed, just the repetition runs a bit long at times.
On the matter of poetry, the film comes across as surrealist poetry especially through dialogue. Things are a bit obtuse, and often allegorical, though this brings a certain type of beauty to this unique narrative. The film is bizarre at times, but everything feels at home in the world they’ve built, and all the messages both allegorical and outright stated hold such weight in both the narrative and reality. There’s commentary on gender, religion, class, even touching on the control of technology; it’s a firmly Black and queer astral journey.
It’s a bit of Sun Ra’s Space is the Place, a touch of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a sprinkle of Welcome II the Terrordome, and somehow it’s own wholly unique experience. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen before, and the bold confidence and strength of its messages make Neptune Frost a powerful experience. Issues regarding gender, class, and freedom are expertly navigated and brought to the fore here, through a complex narrative these subjects are explored and discussed fluidly. A lot of topics are touched upon, and different strands all wave free until we begin to come to the end and everything finds a connection once again. It’s hazy in parts, but the messages come through with stark clarity. An incredible and original film, Neptune Frost is an epic that feels like a ready-made cult classic as time goes on.