Théo Court’s White on White (2019) deconstructs an artistic soul of its protagonist and through his eyes patiently observes the early days of Selk’nam Genocide in the 19th century – the darker page in Chile’s history.
According to a Polish proverb, we become the people with whom we spend the most time with. The story of the protagonist of White on White (2019) – a distinguished portrait photographer Pedro (Alfredo Castro) who arrives to an in-the-middle-of-nowhere mansion in Tierra del Fuego – proves the truthfulness of this saying.
Pedro arrives to the remote land of one Mr. Porter – a mysterious figure who never graces the protagonist with a visit or even a chit-chat. Nevertheless, one crucial scrape of information indicates that the landlord plans a wedding, and Pedro’s task revolves around photographing Mr. Porter’s bride, Sara (Esther Vega Pérez Torres).
Unfortunately, the ceremony has no date settled, and the photographer’s boredom provokes a disturbing fascination over Sara to blossom in Pedro’s mind. That, in spite of Mr. Porter’s absence, means trouble when Pedro goes one step too far while taking the artistic pictures of the bride.
The above constitutes only a part of what interests the director. Rather than telling a story about an old man who develops an unhealthy obsession with a much younger girl, Théo Court leverages that dynamic in order to throw Pedro against a violent world which challenges his artistic soul. Once he finds the locals hostile, Pedro must bend his own will in order to survive.
At this point I feel the urge to state that Pedro isn’t a wet blanket, a sniveling artistic soul that crystallized in my imagination after the film’s beginning.
On the contrary, there’s cunning to be found in him, survival instinct that drives the man. The unpredictability of Pedro owes a lot to Alfredo Castro who constitutes one of the pillars on which the director of White on White (2019) relies. Castro channels the complex nature of Pedro; the nuances comprising of arrogance and condescending nature which eventually concede as the circumstances force him to accept the unfortunate fatum.
These circumstances are created by a pack of hunters on the payroll of Mr. Porter. Days go by, and these vicious gentlemen make money of killing the indigenous Selk’nam people.
Therein lies the essence of Théo Court’s drama, which is the paradox of an artist whose own callousness comes forward when he spends time with killers and hunters. Years ago a certain photograph of vultures circling around a dying child stirred a heated debate concerning whether art has boundaries, and I bet Pedro would seize a similar opportunity to capture the “perfect composition” without hesitation. That’s what Court seems to portray – how sensitivity transforms into emotional numbness, and madness eventually.
Mind that this isn’t madness as seen in Jake Gyllenhaal’s unforgettable role in The Nightcrawler (2014) – in the case of Pedro, his artistic vision casts a shadow over empathy (that he also can’t be denied). And Court truly grasps this nearly psychotic dedication to art in the last scene of the film, in which Pedro creates his most perfect shot. This is a beautifully haunting moment, and an ending that will surely leave many viewers shocked.
In the background of Théo Court’s period drama the DP José Ángel Alayón paints many monumental images. But for all of its pristine beauty, Tierra del Fuego appears as a dump for all kinds of shady characters. It’s a lawless land. Alayón blends panoramic landscape shots with stuffy portraits of reduced screen ratio, which together create a mood of solitude and dismal. Although the places we visit in White on White (2019) are beautiful, people make it absolutely horrid.
Not everything works like clockwork in this film though. Théo Court clearly has a grip of direction, but his storytelling remains too cold and dragged out to fully draw us in emotionally. That is a similar issue that haunted Lucrecia Martel’s epic poem Zama (2017) – which by the way is a very close kin both thematically and visually to White on White (2019). Both these movies suffered from lack of substance, the kind of contemplative cinema that didn’t find a topic worth such deep contemplation.
In the end, White on White (2019) will only appeal to die-hard fans of indie cinema. Too many viewers will skip this one early on, and only a few might chew through its sleepy atmosphere in order to let Court bedazzle them. But for what it’s worth, it’s still a worthwhile look at a forgotten land from an even more forgotten perspective, as well as a tribute to those killed in the genocides that most of us have never heard of, myself included.
White on White (2019)
Original title: Blanco en blanco
Cultural Hater Reverse Grade: 4/10
Director: Théo Court
Writer: Théo Court, Samuel M. Delgado
Starring: Alfredo Castro, Lars Rudolph, Esther Vega Pérez Torres
Genre: drama, slow cinema
- Zama (2017)
- Birds of Passage (2018)
- Embrace of the Serpent (2015)