Dark Tastes [Dan Couto, Canada, 2020]

Pitch dark both visually and tonally, steeped in mystery and intrigue, this ultra stylistic short piece is unparalleled in its ability to unsettle and unnerve. As a proof-of-concept for a future full-length feature, Dark Tastes riffs off surrealist science fiction and fantasy, creating a dizzyingly ambitious and highly original aesthetic, albeit not always fully realised.

We open on a fully darkened screen, the first 90 seconds introducing us to the world of the Dark Tastes Restaurant, a visually restricted environment operating in complete darkness by visually impaired hosts. Hidden behind a veil, we wait and listen as ex-mercenaries, Bron and Simmons, discuss a potential deal, their anonymity assured amidst the darkness. As Simmons orders more drinks for the table, Bron is led to the loo by the highly seductive and sinister host, Jacqueline, memorably portrayed by Alexandra Roulston. From the relative seclusion of the men’s toilet, we learn more of Bron and Jacqueline’s shared muddy past, as the waitress’ otherworldly tastes begin to take hold.

For an opening visual landscape (or lack of), the world of the Dark Tastes Restaurant is intriguing, forcing viewers to focus their senses, deprived as they are of certain elements of film’s multifaceted arsenal. On the whole, the film’s opening can be viewed as a clear strength, as early narrative and visual decisions pique the viewers interest, laying the groundwork for the intrigue that follows. However, it is also the site of one of the short’s most prominent shortcomings.

In a world stripped of visuals by impenetrable darkness, the importance of sound is elevated. Here, however, the delivery of dialogue is muffled, the timbre and tone of vocal performances crackled, made to sound faintly like footsteps through fallen leaves. Having such lines of dialogue blurred and, in effect, thrown away is particularly troublesome with a great deal of exposition and character background laid down early in the script. Our understanding and appreciation of the plot, thereafter, is really made to suffer, as our minds are always playing catch-up to lost fragments of plot.

British viewers of a certain age and persuasion, will do well to remember a similar setting being used for Domhnall Gleeson’s and Rachel McAdams’ famously awkward, romantic date scene from About Time [Richard Curtis, UK, 2013]. In fact, with certain shared parallels, there is ample opportunity for Dark Tastes to be considered as something of an evil doppelganger to Curtis’ more jovial work. Certainly, fantastical elements and sexual deduction run amok in both pictures.

Dark Tastes is undeniably stylistic, with director Dan Couto’s vision clear to see, particularly in the colouring and set design. The early transition from the total darkness of the restaurant’s main atrium into the neon purples of the gents’ toilets provides a real moment of wonder, a glorious initiation out of a cult of darkness into a freeing world of light. Equally, it is here that we are first introduced to the exacting character design of Jacqueline – yellow fluorescent bulb lighting bouncing off her glossy black hair, revealing reflective sunglasses, and her patented shade of “heart’s blood” lipstick that more than smacks of steam punk sensibilities.

Whilst the character design of Jacqueline deserves praise, with a sinister mix of robotic autotune adding variety to her vocal performance later on, the acting performances on show are often bothering. Physical gestures from both leads are often overstated, seemingly more at home in the world of theatre than on the close-ups of a cinema screen. Such an acting style does usefully hint towards the surrealist narrative style of the piece as a whole, but is rarely mirrored by the editing or camera work. The shots on display start to feel unimaginative by the end of the fifteen-minute run time, whilst editing transitions seem clumsy and untrained.

The film’s dark and fantastical tone fits nicely alongside other popular, disturbing, folkloric projects, such as The Neon Demon [Nicolas Winding Refn, UK, 2016] and In Fabric [Peter Strickland, UK, 2018]. However, through its inability to really push these themes home through camera work or editing, as a short it feels disjointed, its generic underpinnings a little muddled.

Dark Tastes’ lack of satisfying narrative conclusion confirms it as a proof-of-concept, rather than a compelling, finished, short film experience. Stylish set and character design provide a real window into the world of the filmmaker, though the picture we witness often feels like it’s having to be propped up somewhat by its promising premise.

'Dark Tastes' was a film in consideration for Short Focus Film Festival 2020.

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