Eye For Film >> Movies >> White Epilepsy (2012) Film Review
Reviewed by: Michael Pattison
Though White Epilepsy began life as an installation piece, the attention and discipline demanded by cinematic exhibition magnifies both the work’s claustrophobia and its manipulation of time. A succession of ‘scenes’ in which two naked human figures interact with one another in extreme slow motion, Philippe Grandrieux’s 68-minute feature might be described as a hybrid of performance art and suggestive, experimental body horror. It might also include the slowest and/or longest asphyxiation scene in the history of film.
Though nothing is more familiar to us at this point than the human form, Grandrieux’s persistent vision – to borrow the sort of gallery-plaque rhetoric befitting this sort of concept – strips things to their bare minimum. Both figures are removed from any other appreciably human context, suspended against a black background to wrestle with one another as if trapped in a contorted Francis Bacon study made flesh. Heightening the claustrophobia, Grandrieux’s aspect ratio is narrow enough to evoke a doorway – restricting its characters to a strict arena and contributing to their belaboured attempts at mobility within it.
Lighting his performers in such a way that the backs of their heads blend into the background, Grandrieux shoots what are for the most part two torsos counteracting, complementing and struggling with one another. It might be disturbing, it might be beautiful. In an art-world lexicon fond of oppositions, of course, it could very possibly be both. As the female upon whom the film opens stoops in such extreme slow motion, we become fixated by the imperceptible protrusion of her vertebrae, the clear shadows of which create a visual cacophony against the wobble of her buttocks. Likewise, the aggression and anguish on display is prolonged, and the sonic distortions of the duo’s breaths begin to take on new forms of meaning. It’s like a more austere reworking of Chris Cunningham’s experimental short Rubber Johnny (2005), like something out of Giger mixed with those layered walls of sound created by musician Sandro Perri, aka Polmo Polpo, for his 2002 album The Science of Breath.
For all the description-cum-analysis, though, the film never feels like a celebration of the human form. Grandrieux’s view appears to be a cold and harsh one. In the penultimate ‘scene’ of the film, incongruous in lighting and tone, a second woman’s face is seen, bloodied and screaming under a light that is bright enough to evoke Laura Dern’s similarly nightmarish facial contortions in David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006). It’s fine that the film is about physicality, of course, but the erotic energies or more sinister undertones for which it presumably strives are precluded by the director’s apparently nebulous view of the human body. Is ‘physicality’ not in fact governed by external forces? Such a materialist outlook might be fundamentally at odds with Grandrieux’s preference to sever the umbilical, of course, and might subsequently be regarded as reductive. But if you’re asking folk to consume such images under cinematic conditions, then your persistent vision is asking for it.Reviewed on: 22 Jun 2013