The narrator of Benjamin Cleary’s “Wave” wakes up from a coma speaking a language that only he can understand.
In “Wave,” a whimsical thirteen-minute short film, written by the young, Oscar-winning Irish filmmaker Benjamin Cleary and co-directed by Cleary and T. J. O’Grady Peyton, a young man named Gaspar Rubicon (O’Grady Peyton) wakes up from a five-year coma speaking a language that only he can understand. It’s “a bizarre, unrecognizable dialect completely unique to himself,” a narrator says, in a gentle voice-over. (The narrator is Jarvis Cocker, of Pulp.) As the film begins, though, we can understand Gaspar. In a video that he and some friends have made, he speaks what, to us, sounds like English. “I miss talking to people,” he says, looking somewhat lost. “I miss reading a book. I miss understanding the lyrics to a song.” Gaspar is isolated and frustrated, unable to communicate. With the tenor of a fable, “Wave” artfully traces the trajectory of this chapter of Gaspar’s life, from coma to consciousness and from isolation to connection, culminating in a triumphant use of seventies Bowie.
The filmmakers’ confidence is clear throughout, narratively and aesthetically. Early on, a description of Rubicon’s accident and the resulting coma (“June 14, 2012: Gaspar Rubicon is found lying on a city street with nineteen broken bones and a severe head injury”) features a screenful of gorgeous, dreamy, liquid images, in which Gaspar’s body, peaceful and languid, floats across a sea of shifting blues and purples, to relaxing piano music. “Upon arrival at the hospital, he promptly falls into a deep coma,” Cocker says. Almost five years later, Gaspar wakes up. We see him in a regular old hospital, no longer in that dream world; but now he carries that world’s surreality with him, into his waking life. The language he speaks sounds a bit Eastern European; he speaks it urgently, but no one understands him, and he understands no one. In a tidy series of shots of mid-century books and diagrams that recall the work of Wes Anderson, with further narration by Cocker, we learn that neither doctors nor books are capable of helping Gaspar relearn English. “Nothing yields any results,” Cocker says. (One wishes that Raleigh St. Clair could give it a whirl.) Eventually, Gaspar gets housing and a job, as a janitor. “As time goes on, he becomes more and more invisible, cut off, an alien from another planet,” Cocker says, as we watch Gaspar eat, listen to music, take public transportation, and huff ether. “But he remains a ghost,” Cocker says. O’Grady Peyton, as Gaspar, has an open, thoughtful, sympathetic face—immediately sympathetic—and a keen sense of humor. He neither underplays nor overplays the role; we pity Gaspar as we puzzle to understand his condition.
After “years of loneliness, depression, and boredom,” Gaspar gets an idea. His co-workers help him record the video that we saw at the beginning, in which he speaks his language. They put it on YouTube, in the hope that they’ll find someone who can communicate with him. From there, things get thrilling, then terrible, then thrilling again, via Gaspar’s human connections with others, beginning with an oafish man named Huldvar, from southern Sheffield, England. In the end, the Internet, our universal hyper-connector, heroically intervenes. In a triumphant final moment of joy, Gaspar is beaming and Bowie is singing, “Oh, no, love, you’re not alone.”
“Wave” isn’t Cleary’s first film about speech and its discontents, which are ameliorated by the Internet but also complicated by it: that was the first film that he directed, the Oscar-winning live-action short “Stutterer,” featured in our Screening Room series, in 2016. In it, a London typographer named Greenwood (Matthew Needham), who has a severe stutter, finds a connection with a woman online, in messaging, but is afraid to meet her in real life. “Wave” ’s territory is more metaphorical than “Stutterer” ’s, verging toward magical realism—a bedtime story told by Jarvis Cocker. The film’s sentiment is recognizable to anyone who has struggled to feel heard. Its happily-ever-after consists of the simplest kind of communication that there is—and one of the cheeriest.