December 12th 2009 06:47
‘Quaint’ is how the shapely extraterrestrial repeatedly describes her human companion in Epsilon. It’s probably a word that could also be used to describe this film, made by writer-director Rolf de Heer straight after his underground hit, Bad Boy Bubby.
A true product of the neo-hippy mid 90s and obviously enamoured with the shifting time lapse technology developed by Ron Fricke, Epsilon (stirringly renamed Alien Visitor for its overseas release) is Baraka with a narrative, albeit a truly sparse one.
Sometime in the future a woman gathers her grandchildren round a campfire and tells the contemporary tale of He (a very goofy Syd Brisbane), an ordinary Australian outback surveyor, and She (a very hair-gelled Ulli Birve), an extraterrestrial visitor sent to Earth apparently by mistake.
After an awkward initial meeting, the alien sets out to show him how crazy his world is, and how blinkered the human race has become to the destruction of its own environment. She doesn’t shy away from the ugly truth and is frequently patronising of the honest-living surveyor, but as they zip about the globe from one environment to another a tentative relationship begins to develop between the two.
This is how the story is laid out in Miramax’s 1997 theatrical version, de Heer being asked to add the framing device of the fireside storyteller after initial screenings left the studio totally baffled. It added a touch of the conventional to the narrative, but traditional storytelling hardly seemed to be at the forefront of de Heer’s concerns when he set out to make this film.
Indeed, the wider context of man’s destruction of the globe sits right in the middle of this film’s artistic space, the message sometimes bordering on the didactic as She berates the human race for being a pack of land-grabbing, resource-chewing miscreants.
Of course, so much has changed in the fourteen years since de Heer wheeled out his original cut at Cannes. Global warming is now at the forefront of the human race’s collective consciousness and a film such as Epsilon almost seems redundant by the slow-cooking standards of the early 21st century.
Still, that takes nothing away from its technical merits. Tony Clark’s cinematography is something else, the careful framing that much more impressive given he’s often working within the constraints of time-lapse. There are numerous sequences where the protagonists segue into and out of this disorientating technique, sometimes seemingly captured with a normal crank at the front of the frame while time speeds by in the background. It makes for a frequently stunning experience, even if the effort is almost self-consciously experimental at times.
The other off screen credits are almost as fine, with a stirring electronic score provided by Graham Tardif moving to the beat of the pristine visuals and also some innovative editing techniques, courtesy of Tania Nehme.
It’s this work that makes Epsilon the engaging curiosity it is today - you certainly can’t rely on the performances, which are frequently wooden, Brisbane and Birve seeming to be constantly searching for an angle on their sparsely written characters, and the incessant narration sometimes grates. As a technical experiment, however, Epsilon remains an impressive work.
I say: It ain’t no Koyaanisqatsi, lacking that film’s potency and keen sense of wide view storytelling, but Epsilon is worth a look for any fan of Fricke or Godfrey Reggio.
See it for: Some of the most awkward cross-cultural courting ever witnessed.
‘Epsilon’ is part of the ‘Rolf de Heer Collection’, now available on DVD from Umbrella Entertainment.
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