Distressingly beautiful and subtly provocative, “White on White,” the slow-burn second feature from the Spanish-Chilean director Théo Court, considers the casual violence of image-making against a 19th-century backdrop of flesh-and-bones barbarism.
Set in a grimly frigid and not yet fully colonized stretch of Tierra Del Fuego, Argentina’s southernmost archipelago, a photographer, Pedro (an excellent Alfredo Castro), is contracted to take wedding portraits of Miss Sara (Esther Vega Pérez Torres), a powerful landowner’s child-bride.
Pleased with Pedro’s work, the landowner, Mr. Porter — a figure whose continual absence (he never appears onscreen) makes him all the more sinister — has the photographer stay to document his estate and its operations. The most powerful, after all, control the writing of their own histories.
When Pedro is discovered to have secretly taken a suggestive photo of Miss Sara, however, his visit is extended indefinitely as he is absorbed into Mr. Porter’s wretched band of employees.
Though the drama restages two real-life sets of photographs that inspired Court — Lewis Carroll’s perturbingly erotic portraits of prepubescent young women and the harrowing images of the explorer Julius Popper’s huntsmen standing over the bodies of slaughtered Indigenous people — “White on White” refuses to indulge in spectacular violence.
Instead, Court — whose languorous pacing heightens the film’s brief, bewildering moments of action — summons an unsettling experience from relatively restrained gestures: the way Miss Sara’s sleeves are pulled down over her shoulders, delicately eroticizing her figure; a grave mound in the distance after a night of debauchery involving kidnapped Indigenous women.
The cinematographer José Ángel Alayón shows us frames within frames that emphasize the limited subjectivity of Pedro’s camera — a comment on the considerations inevitably left out of any artwork — as well as long shots that capture glorious vistas shrouded in fog, both heavenly and hostile. Ultimately, these images remind us of the cruelty embedded in the striving for perfection, aesthetic or otherwise.
White on White
Not rated. In Spanish and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. Watch on Mubi.