By Richard Ades
Neptune Frost may be the most mesmerizing film of recent years. It’s also one of the most beautiful. And, frustratingly, one of the most puzzling.
Set in a futuristic version of Rwanda, the sci-fi musical introduces us to Neptune (Elvis Nagabo), who cryptically announces through a narrator, “I was born in my 23rd year.” Then, while we’re still pondering that bit of information, the film switches its attention to Matalusa (Bertrand “Kaya Free” Ninteretse), who works in the local coltan mine. (Coltan is a mineral used in high-tech products, a fact whose significance soon becomes clear.)
After each of their lives is waylaid by an act of violence, Neptune and Matalusa separately take to the road and begin wandering through a countryside damaged by war and oppressed by authoritarianism. Eventually, they cross paths in an enclave of technologically minded rebels, but not before Neptune undergoes a transformation that leaves the masculine-looking individual looking decidedly more feminine (and played by a different actor, Cheryl Isheja).
The script by Saul Williams, who also composed the beautiful score, is obscure and sometimes blatantly symbolic. Characters with names such as “Memory” and “Psychology” discuss mysterious topics such as “binary crime theory” and make statements along the lines of “The motherboard is bleeding.” Furthermore, the standard greeting is “Unanimous goldmine,” and the standard answer to the everyday question “How are you?” is “Shining!”
All of this creates an eccentric world that might have been a chore for viewers to navigate if co-directors Williams and Anisia Uzeyman hadn’t filled the screen with hauntingly surreal and dreamlike images—and if composer Williams hadn’t punctuated the action with music that ranges from infectious rhythmic chants to ethereal ballads. Imaginative makeup, costumes and sets add to the otherworldly atmosphere.
Despite the ambiguities, it eventually becomes clear that the film has two overarching themes: It opposes the colonial-type exploitation that continues to plague Africa now that natural resources such as coltan have made it indispensable to modern technology. And it supports the freedom of every individual—including unconventional individuals such as the intersexual Neptune—to live the life they were meant to lead.
These themes add up to a moral structure that helps to ground the flick despite the fact that it doesn’t fit into any recognizable pattern.
As intriguing as it is, Neptune Frost is almost the definition of a film that’s not for everyone. For some, its refusal to explain itself makes it a frustrating challenge. But for those who are content to lose themselves in its unfamiliar world of images and sounds, it’s a fascinating journey.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Neptune Frost opens June 3 in New York and expands to other selected theaters June 10.