Stephen Rutterford’s Finding Ophelia is a kaleidoscopic journey through a nightmare of longing. The film, which runs just over an hour, exists almost entirely in the disorienting dream realm of William Edgar (Jimmy Levar), an advertising executive plagued by nocturnal visions of a beautiful woman. He doesn’t know who Ophelia (Christina Chu-Ryan) is, but she calls to him and he desperately wants to answer. His investigation takes him to dark places and uncovers a history of tragedy. He can’t trust his own mind. We the viewers can’t trust the world around him.
Ophelia shines when Rutterford focuses on surrealist visuals with ambient music or the occasional bizarro street-dance sequence. There are some really gorgeous moments here, particularly when Will’s path leads him into the realm of unsettling horror (and nasty bodily fluids). The cinematography is gorgeous. Plus, the sound design is consistent and, in the right moments, as alienating as the visuals on display.
However, the story is desperately confusing, too much so. Surrealism and abstract visuals pique curiosity but become exhausting without an emotional hook, and William’s search for Ophelia is as shallow as, well, most men’s hunts for beautiful women and the sexual frustration that drives them. Sexual — or, to be charitable, romantic — frustration is a universal fallback for surreal stories, but there isn’t enough substance here to make the overall ride compelling. Will sheds his job, his life and his friends on his search for Ophelia and none of it really seems to matter. He loses everything in search of a dream, but there’s little drama to the descent.
At times Finding Ophelia feels like standing in an avant-garde art installation, marveling at the interesting sensory experience, only to be interrupted by exposition and intrigue that never feels engaging. And of course it’s worth noting that the predominant goal of the movie seems to be those sensory experiences. The story is secondary, simply a hook on which to hang the characters and move from image to image, moment to moment. Insofar as those moments and images are the point, Finding Ophelia succeeds, but as a whole experience, the weakness of that hook causes the whole thing to crumble. The audience ends up as disoriented as Will, and without an emotional payoff, that’s quite a lot to ask of them.