Director Phillipe Grandrieux’s new avant-garde film, White Epilepsy, ventures into some of the darkest, most primordial caverns of human physicality, eschewing narrative development in favor of stunning visuals. Each individual frame is eerie and haunting, yet undeniably lovely, asserting the sexual power of the female while exploring the impressionability of the human body, as well as the body’s relationship to its environment and external forces. In this film, Grandrieux explores the point where the tumult of the human psyche blurs into physical experience, probing at the question of how one’s innate nature manifests itself in external interactions. Utilizing an unprecedentedly narrow aspect ratio, the film forces viewers to temporarily abandon peripheral vision as they wander into its dark, sublime world.
White Epilepsy depicts the sexual domination of a man by a woman, where the woman is the aggressive perpetrator of sexual violence. The pacing of the narrative is extremely slow, as Grandrieux immerses his audience in a pure sensory experience. The film begins with a level shot of the back of a pale nude man in pitch darkness. For approximately the first ten minutes, the man slowly hunches over into an exhausted crouch. For those ten minutes, the viewers watch as the man’s body slowly convulses and shifts with his changing position and breath. Then, the scene changes to a shot of a nude woman from behind. She slowly walks through the darkness, and as the scene progresses, it becomes clear that the film is situated in a dark, primordial marsh.
When she comes across the man in the marsh, she walks around him, touching his hand in a sort of curious affection, and then pushes him down into a squat with her fists. As she does so, we are shown the man’s face as he cries out in pain; however, the sound that we hear is not a cry – it is a slowed, amplified bellow that not only magnifies his pain, but also makes the violence of the scene more primal and base. For the remainder of the film, we watch the woman exert her sexual prowess over the man’s body in something of a strange, beautiful dance. At the very end of the film, there is a close-up of a pale, blonde woman with blood dripping from her lips. The image of her face dissolves into the final shot of the top of an old man’s head as he sits in an exhausted crouch.
Leaving the film, I found Grandrieux’s choice in depicting a woman as a perpetrator of sexual abuse to be jolting and polemical. Typically, women are depicted as the victims of sexual abuse, but in this film, women are endowed with a sexual power usually reserved for men on the screen. Is this film then a bitter, caustic interpretation of feminism? Or is this film more personal, commenting on Grandrieux’s own psychosexual preoccupations?
The complex political implications of Grandrieux’s work aside, White Epilepsy is an aesthetically stunning film. Immersing the viewer in an intensely primordial “nightmare”, Grandrieux has created a film that will enrapture audiences adventurous enough to venture into its world.