Bokeh: noun. The blurred quality or effect seen in the out-of-focus portion of a photograph taken with a narrow depth of field. That’s the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of the obscure word, and it’s an apt, if opaque, title for a film about a photographer and his girlfriend who experience a world-altering event on vacation in Iceland.
You could say it’s an apocalypse, but there’s no natural disaster, no violence, no plague. There’s actually no event at all, but everyone disappears overnight, leaving Jenai (Maika Monroe) and Riley (Matt O’Leary) very much alone, together. The sun rises and sets, the escalators in the mall run, the espresso machines work, but every person is gone without a trace. What was a romantic dream vacation exploring the hot springs and rugged landscape of Iceland, camera in hand, is suddenly the end of the world.
Written and directed by Geoffrey Orthwein and Andrew Sullivan, “Bokeh” turns the notion of the apocalypse into a philosophical exploration of the meaning of life. This end of the world isn’t an end of the world, truly — it’s just the mysterious lack of humans from an otherwise normal environment.
While the couple cope with an indulgent spree through the local shops and bars and wait for any sign or news, the apocalypse is what happens to them mentally and emotionally. Soon it’s an existential nightmare, as the film begs the questions: What is the reality of being alone? With all of that landscape, what is one to do without any people in it?
The event reveals a moral chasm between the previously inseparable Riley and Jenai, one that widens slowly, imperceptibly, but widens nonetheless. Where he sees opportunity and adventure, she sees a prison. “We could still live a good life,” he says, and she can only respond, “I don’t even know what that is anymore.” The pair are yin and yang: Riley lives in his body, Jenai in her mind. He lives in the present, she yearns to know the future and mourns for her past.
They wander around deserted, picturesque Icelandic villages, explore the rocky coast, glaciers, cliffs and meadows; loot grocery stores and move into a neat Scandinavian home. Their circumstances are bleak and yet undeniably beautiful. With dreamy cinematography by Joe Lindsay, and a mournful, swooning score by Keegan DeWitt, the film has a lyrical quality that mirrors the unreality they’re feeling in this stark situation.
Jenai is tortured by questions that might never be answered. She feels abandoned by God and questions her own spirituality and belief systems. Considering the way a glacier slowly wipes the globe clean, she muses, “maybe God got impatient.” She wonders if it was her God or another that has landed them in this predicament. The ethereal Monroe anchors the film, and her quiet performance is transfixing. Her deeply felt spiritual torment not only resonates, but eclipses the rather superficial desires of Riley.
What sets “Bokeh” apart among the “low-key apocalypse” cinematic subgenre is not what happens, but what doesn’t happen. They start to break down not because anything’s happening, but because nothing’s happening. It’s the unknowing that is their undoing. The result is a subtle but ultimately profound humanist message: it’s human fallibility that ends the world as we know it, but is it ever a world without humans in it?
(At Screenland Crossroads.)
Not rated. Time: 1:32.