It begins with the prone naked figure of a woman in a blurred out world. A mezzanine place. Who is she? What has happened to her? Within this white questionable expanse we receive flashes of other, more disquieting imagery. Suggestions of violence. The ethereal score swells. Welcome to the opening of Christopher Butler’s debut feature The Scopia Effect; a low-budget psychological thriller of no small ambition, a film that tethers itself to the label ‘sci-fi’ with the same parachute strings as, say, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color.
Like Carruth – though perhaps not quite with such astonishing success – Butler assembles his film as a cascading collage. That’s not where the similarities end either. The Scopia Effect is presented with that same graceful tempo of restless cutting, frequently presenting its images in a world that feels floodlit. A little too bright. The other immediate touchstone is Terrence Malick. It feels as though there is a concerted effort here to latch onto that same sense of stone-stepping wonder. A buoyancy springing the film from shot to shot. This attempt to catch similar lightning in a bottle is as ambitious as the film’s story. And if The Scopia Effect occasionally falls slightly short of its dreams, it’s not for lack of trying.
The young woman we encounter at the film’s beginning is Basia (Joanna Ignaczewska). Born in Poland, living in England, she’s an office worker who also attends dance classes as well as regular sessions with a hypnotherapist, Dr Stanton (Louis Labovitch), attempting to reconcile the death of her mother Behula (Genevieve Sibayan). It is during one of these sessions that Basia first seems to become aware of memories from her past lives. As the film progresses Butler affords us further glimpses of these histories, widening the scope of his film to include the likes of Japan circa 1824, pastoral France in 1712 or the India of 1641. Each past life contains a mini-story in itself, some more elaborate than others. These histories, however, begin to haunt Basia day and night, pouring into her life in ways she cannot control. Pretty soon we start following her down the rabbit hole as past and present mix, truth and hallucination dissolving into one another.
Hypnosis itself is a fascinating thing; that a person can be so thoroughly transported by mere words; suggestions which the subject’s mind transforms into a new if temporary reality. Butler’s film feels – for long stretches – like a similar reshaping of the conscious world. With as many as seven different timelines running through the film, the narrative becomes as fractured as Basia’s ability to contend with it. In addition to this, Butler also plays with the continuity of Basia’s present, to further pull the rug from beneath us. This has a dual effect; it underscores Basia’s panicky tumble through past experiences, but at the same time it arguably hampers our ability to follow the course of her decline by shifting us back and forth along its path. If that’s a complaint, however, it’s worth noting that it’s a mild one. Fortunately the beguiling nature of the images Butler selects for us happily compensates for the sensation of narrative dislocation.
And there is much for Butler to be proud of here. On a shoestring budget he has crafted something of considerable scale with some eye-catching and memorable visual effects. Basia’s symptoms come to displace not just time but space. That sensation you get when you go to step on a step but it’s not there? That’s queasily evoked in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that opens up further dimensions in the film, no pun intended. Butler’s a dab hand at the jump-scare too. Some of Basia’s memories jolt into the present with unnerving intensity. An almost Lynchian flavour of outside forces crashing in on our protagonist. Lynch suggests himself in other aspects of the film also, particularly the rather excellent score from Moritz Schmittat which occasionally recalls the mournful synths that helped Inland Empire to blur out at the edges.
Basia’s memories are preoccupied with betrayal and violence and the inter-connectivity of the two. It’s playful to wonder, if past lives were real, what it might be like to be able to recall them. Butler proposes that the experience would be a sense-memory flood of simply overwhelming proportions. Basia’s experiences totally dominate her ‘waking’ state. She does little to remedy her situation, let alone attempt to put those who might care for her at ease. Evidently there is such a thing as too much information.
Credit where it’s due; while The Scopia Effect has its influences, it also holds its own as a piece of work, and while it does occasionally have the feel of a debut it’s worth remembering that it is. Butler makes a strong case for himself here and, given the opportunity, could well develop into a very interesting talent in British film. This is an encouraging start to say the least, and a film which strives commendably to keep the viewer engaged with questions. A fluid, ambitious, occasionally startling accomplishment. And if the effect occasionally falters its worth remembering how frequently it works and works well. I feel like I’ve applied too many caveats here. This is an engaging piece of work, well worth your time.
The Scopia Effect is available exclusively on iTunes from 27th April 2015.