That unique artist, director and psycho-geographic savant Andrew Kötting sculpts another strange film-shamanic happening – intriguing, sometimes baffling, a bit preposterous, but pregnant with ideas. Tonally, his work is complex; humour is a part of it, and the film can’t really function without humour on the audience’s part, but it also requires a setting aside of mockery and irony, demanding instead to be accepted as a kind of higher playfulness, an inspired and transcendental jeu d’ésprit. In his 2012 film Swandown, Kötting included among his cast of characters a cameo from the comedian Stewart Lee, who was permitted to take the mickey a bit. But I sense that this isn’t a response that the film-maker wants to encourage.
Like much of his previous work, this is a dream-documentary road movie, a journey across a physical and mental landscape – using both video and Super 8, in the enigmatic company, as so often before, of the author Iain Sinclair whose world view is a cousin to Kötting’s. Sinclair’s own film-prose-poem London Orbital from 2002, co-directed with Christopher Petit, and featuring an appearance from JG Ballard, is a point of comparison.
What we are seeing here is the creation of a ritualised dramatic fiction, a film about a mysterious object that is itself a mysterious object, and the participants must enter into the spirit of it all with a straight face. The audience need not make exactly that commitment, although you do have to indulge it.
The premise is that artist Steve Dilworth has fabricated a box made out of whalebone, the size of a loaf of bread, taken from the remains of a whale that was beached on the Isle of Harris in Scotland. Now Kötting and Sinclair are going to bring this box back to where this event supposedly happened, bury it there, and so achieve a sort of mystical closure and a sense of oneness with the natural world. Kötting also uses some recorded statements on the soundtrack from Philip Hoare, author of the book Leviathan, or The Whale – and these statements themselves sound as if they are being transmitted via radio signals from another planet.
On the way, they make various important pit-stops, paying homage at landmarks. The Scottish artist and singer stage-named MacGillivray (otherwise Kirsten Norrie) performs some beautiful mermaid-style keening/singing over the box, and the conceit is that this will imbue it with greater power, like a charged spiritual battery.
But the most important parts of the film come when Kötting reflects on his daughter, Eden (also featured in his 2011 film Louyre: This Our Still Life), who has a genetic disorder. There are many enigmatic scenes in which Eden is shown in a wood, sitting on a chair, startlingly cradling a rifle – evidently not loaded – and sometimes peering through binoculars. Kötting ponders what Eden sees, what she feels, and he does so with an absolute refusal of sentimentality or condescension.
This whole thing, the whole elaborate business of transporting a whalebone box, could be an unacknowledged metaphor for his feelings about Eden, or displacement activity.
At its best, The Whalebone Box is folk horror without the horror, and there are some disturbing sequences imagining the box floating through stark woodland, as if in a nightmare. This film is a butterfly that won’t be broken on any wheel; in fact, it’s strong enough to break the wheel. I’ve never quite known exactly what to make of Kötting’s work, but it always has an engaging and very human quality, and it is never dull.
• The Whalebone Box is available on Mubi from 3 April.