The Whalebone Box review – disorienting docudrama defies description

This experimental work from filmmaker Andrew Köttin chronicles a strange journey to return a mythical object to its place of origin

A white box, made of whalebone. Static noises. Grainy black-and-white footage. Voices coming to us, via a radio, as if right out of the past. A woman sits in a chair, alone in a wood, searching for something with a pair of binoculars, her mumbled words revealed to us only in subtitles. Then we’re inside a familiar museum, looking at a whale suspended from the ceiling – and all the time, there’s talk of a long journey to return a mysterious object to its place of origin.

Where to start with something like The Whalebone Box? Strange, playful, pretentious, alternatively captivating and tedious, it’s a film that defies description, let alone review. Directed by experimental filmmaker Andrew Köttin, it’s a work of an inescapable eeriness – a beguiling mix of documentary, archive footage, soundscape, and maybe even horror.

It seems futile to try to describe the plot of a film that has zero interest in presenting us with an easy-to-describe narrative, but in its most basic sense it involves Kötting himself, travelling with poet Iain Sinclair and pinhole camera photographer Anonymous Bosch, on a road trip to return a box made from whalebone to the place where it was first crafted – the Isle of Harris in Scotland. This journey is frequently intercut with footage of Kötting’s daughter, Eden, who suffers from Joubert syndrome and is seemingly trying to connect the dots and explain the story behind the titular object.

There is an unmistakable “artiness” to the enterprise, like something you’d find screening on an endless loop in the back room of a museum somewhere. It’s a film of relentless ideas that overlap and twist around one another, posing yet more ideas. And perhaps it’s a film about how objects come to establish their own mythology, to the extent that making a film about this box’s supposed mythology has therefore imbued it with one. Is the idea that The Whalebone Box makes such a fuss over something that deserves none? A clearly intentional playfulness suggests bafflement might, in fact, be the point.

The Whalebone Box has no use for star ratings; consider the three stars awarded here as a mere placeholder for a question mark. Maybe at another time this is not the sort of film you’d recommend to somebody with just a few hours to spare, on a weekend, to take in a film. But at the height of an epidemic, confined to our homes, time is something many of us have in abundance, and so there is more room for risk-taking, for going to strange places we’ve never been before – and you won’t have been anywhere quite like this.

The Whalebone Box is now streaming on MUBI.

Where to watch online

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