Given that Ultranova reveals its climax at the very beginning of the film, the final moments come as little surprise. What are something of a jolt to the system are the end credits, which come with such energy and noise that they throw the previous ninety minutes into stark contrast. Whereas this blast of guitar that is a deliberate assault on the senses, the noise of the world these characters live in is subliminal yet oppressive.
This is an environment of industry and urban development. Dimitri and is colleagues sell a promise of hope for the future, but are all aware that that promise is a hollow one. As in recent explorations of the Los Angeles landscape, such as Collateral and Crash, Ultranova presents a society distanced by the technological “conveniences” of automobiles. The reliance on the car reduces human contact to a minimum, to the point where Verbrugghe basically becomes his car. In all of these characters there is a primal longing to reach out and touch another, but the social necessity to do so is gone.
Throughout the film, the characters are almost speechless, or at least incapable of vocalising anything that they truly feel. Rather than dialogue, the action is accompanied by a constant hum of the industrial landscape that they find themselves lost in – the drone of the motorway, factories, planes – all given an ethereal quality by the ever-present wind that caries them across the featureless flat landscape. In this world everything, everyone, is lost or rejected. The camera slowly tracks past empty buildings, old and new, oddly scattered along empty streets. Although the characters we are presented all seem lost in their own lives, within this melancholy grey landscape they seem completely at home. None of them have entirely given into their fate though, and all make some attempt to escape the misery, to varying degrees of success.
Dimitri – actually the least interesting character in Ultranova – simply shrouds himself in silence, to the point where contact with other humans (even his parents) is uncomfortable. Cathy chooses to suppress her real emotions, while her friend Jeanne dares to dream and seemingly succeeds in escaping to Italy. But it is Verbrugghe’s path that has the most resonance. He initially appears as a mere comic relief amongst all the misery – a ranting and unhappy man attempting to retain some control over his life. As he explains in his driving safety seminar, it is only when you respond to the skid with emotion that you truly lose control. It soon becomes apparent though that we are witnessing the final moments of the skid in his life.
Following the barely-contained rage seen in his eyes during his driving, his next scene – his own funeral – is uncomfortably anticipated. His suicide appears to have little effect on those around him. As Phil points out, his widow seemed completely unmoved. However, more than the death of a friend or the apparent apathy that meets it, what is more upsetting for him is that the bargirl whose pregnancy he has been so keenly observing isn’t pregnant at all. The philosophical framework he has built around this woman is his only safety net to prevent himself from self-hatred or social withdrawal of his companions, and within seconds you see his whole world fall apart. Behind his eyes, there is nothing but hopelessness, nothing but the irrepressible background noise of his environment.
Earlier in the film, when Jeanne and Cathy try to rescue some rejected plants, the man throwing them out tells them they can’t have them. Why? There is no reason. Salvation is simply out of the question. These characters all need a shock to the system to get them out of their respective ruts – ultimately the only shock Ultranova can offer its audience is a climactic burst of noise.
Originally written for Sight & Sound/BFI Postgraduate Certificate in Film Journalism.