Oliver Black (Xander Berkeley – “Butcher’s Crossing) is an artist. He works out of a studio in his home in a village in Vermont.
One fall morning, he wakes to find his wife, Evelyn (Sarah Clarke – “Coda”) dead beside him. His trauma is intense – she is clearly the love of his life, and to have her taken from him, without warning, is crushing.
So begins a very different kind of love story, written and directed by Steve Balderson (“Sex. Lies, and Sugar”). Instead of using flashbacks, reminiscences, or some other device, Balderson explores the relationship through the gradual re-emergence of Evelyn from death – either as experienced in Oliver’s mind or perhaps in an alternate reality where her soul remains to comfort, sustain, and finally free Oliver to go on with his life. As such, their past is not important to the story. It is the present, as they explore the reality of his art, that we see.
When Oliver discovers Evelyn is dead, his first impulse is to call the police. But then he pauses. He cannot bear to have her gone. That night, he gets back into bed, embracing her body. The next day, he makes a death mask from her face, and placing her in the bathroom tub, pours preserving ice over her.
The phone ring. He’s ignored previous calls, but now he answers. It’s his agent, Alex (Mink Stole – “Hush Up Sweet Charlotte”), calling from town. Oliver has the opportunity to accept a very significant commission for the entry piece to the new wing of a prestigious art museum. He responds positively and tells her he has an idea.
Oliver casts the life mask, several in fact, and begins painting one of them. As he does, Evelyn is gradually re-animated: first only her voice, then some movement in bed, and finally fully aware and appearing with Oliver in his studio, conversing with him as he works.
This is a very remarkable film. It has been described as gothic, supernatural, surreal. It is all these things to a degree, but it is much more. Balderson explores the concept of death, of companionship, bonding, self-exploration, loss, healing – in short, about the things most of us experience as we share our lives, and deaths, with our nearest and dearest.
There are many works of art in Oliver’s studio, including the various versions of Evelyn that he works on. Amazingly, these artworks are, in fact, the product of Xander Berkeley himself.
Special effects are kept to a minimum, in keeping with the gentle nature of the film. As Evelyn becomes more and more alive, whether in reality or in Oliver’s mind, she is brightly lit while Oliver and the sets are in shadow. She is bathed in vibrant color while all else is washed out, faded. This is just the opposite of what one would expect. In addition, a soft focus is used throughout most of the scenes, giving them a dreamlike quality whenever Oliver is alone.
Finally, the sound. There are discordant, nerve-jangling sounds during various scenes that detract from rather than add to the experience. Fortunately, in many other places a variety of beautiful musical pieces accentuate the progress of the story. The most effective of these is “Nimrod,” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.”
“Alchemy of the Spirit” is a beautifully crafted film, and an experience viewers will not soon forget. Don’t be scared off by the references to death, the supernatural, or the idea that this is some murky, unintelligible art film. It is so much more.
Writer Director: Steve Balderson
Cinematographer: Hanuman Brown-Eagle
Editor: Jimmy Cohen
Oliver: Xander Berkeley
Evelyn: Sarah Clarke
Alex: Mink Stole
Sam: Whip Hubley
Runtime: One hour, 32 minutes
Availability: Prime Video, Tubi
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