A message at the beginning of Seeking Wellness - a warning, perhaps - lets the viewer know that this is not a film. According to that message, this is a video ritual. And this video ritual's makers want you to know from stage one that this is not your average film, from the warning on the DVD packaging about how to experience the film to the minimalistic opening sequence.
The four movements begin with a black and white surveillance feed of a doctor's office that is the victim of an obscene and brutal attack. The sequence is punctuated only by a deep, booming musical score, which almost serves as a heartbeat to the proceedings. It's a vicious sequence that takes control out of the viewers' hands by cycling through the different security cameras at a fixed interval. Schneidkraut's technique here builds a strong sense of unease, which makes the first movement of his video ritual an effective success.
The second movement is probably Seeking Wellness' most heart-wrenching sequence, focusing on a depressed father and his Christmas interactions with his children while relaying his family's dark past. The sequence puts the father - played quite effectively by Charles Hubbell - in a narrator role as he reviews slides from his childhood to his disinterested children, and it quickly slips in to a very dark place. Suffering is achieved once again, and the ritual moves to two-for-two.
Things get more abstract in the final two movements, which take place in a lecture hall and are hosted by two female students who are presenting "final projects" on the human condition. The sequence opens with a female student presenting on the use of subliminal and subconscious messaging in society that was a bit too tongue-in-cheek for my tastes, and is complemented by a second student presenting her project. This video presentation follows a man who, after losing a lover, decides he will do everything he can to give himself cancer. This sequence also left me a little flat compared to the first two, and it leads to a finale that I am still struggling to gauge. I'm not sure if I was amused or annoyed by the final scene, but I'm afraid that I was uncomfortable for the wrong reasons. Unlike the first two movements, these scenes seemed more blatantly scripted to me, and some of the realistic dread inspired by the opening segments faded away as the ritual started to look more like a film.
Production values are fantastic across the board. The camera is almost always set in a fixed location, which helps the viewer feel like an observer of these "projects" as they unfold. There's a delicate balance that is achieved to keep the film from looking too professional or too raw, and the simple sound design adds to Seeking Wellness' ability to get inside our heads. Acting is never a problem, with the cast fitting in to this high concept idea well, and (aside from the concerns I've already shared about the final segments) the script doesn't lose focus thanks to their devotion to the material.
Seeking Wellness is not something I'm comfortable grading against FMWL's normal fare, because it's clear that Schneidkraut's production has greater aspirations than the run-of-the-mill slasher film or drive-in spook show. I wonder if I prepared myself too well for Seeking Wellness - like a good horror fan, I approach something that tells me I'll suffer with an 'I'm a big boy, I can take it!" approach - because I'm not sure I felt the maximum effect of the suffering that the film wanted. But I admire Seeking Wellness a lot for being a unique experiment that literally tries to push the viewer's buttons, and I imagine it could be quite a talking piece for a group viewing or a psychology class.
For more information on Seeking Wellness, head over to the official site - where you can find more information about festival showings and even order the DVD if you like. If you get sucked in to it, you may end up suffering through a unique viewing experience.