Review: ‘The Tesla World Light’

Cannes 2017

3 mins read

The Tesla World Light
(Canada, 8 min.)
Dir. Matthew Rankin


Peter Mettler’s Picture of Light proves that a filmmaker can capture the fleeting radiance of the Northern Lights to create an image of dreamlike beauty, but can one also control light to express illumination? Director Matthew Rankin (Mynarksi Death Plummet) and his team at the NFB prove that one can take hold of the elements and make them sparkle. His experimental hybrid film The Tesla World Light, which premieres at Cannes’ Semaine de la critique, strips film down to its essential element—light—and puts illumination at the core of its design. This imaginative interpretation of the work of inventor Nikola Tesla, father of the alternating current, is an audacious shock of cinematic genius.

The Tesla World Light playfully dives into the currents of Tesla’s psyche as the inventor makes an appeal to his past benefactor JP Morgan while battling a weirdly sexual attraction to a pet bird. The spirit of Guy Maddin endures in this fantastical nightmare as Tesla’s insecurities plague him in a subconscious collage of dreamy images, loopy sounds, and archaic cinematic styles. Morgan exists as a fleeting archival image that floats around the screen while the bird, a stop-motion puppet, squawks at the inventor played by actor Robert Vilar, tinkers with currents of electricity to achieve his vision. Narrative cohesion and the sense of reality break down as Tesla’s self-doubts overwhelm him.

“It was not a dream,” muses Tesla. “It was a simple feat of electrical engineering.” Rankin conveys Tesla’s ingenuity and insecurity by harnessing the power of electricity with a grasp the inventor could only imagine. Arts outdo science’s reach in Tesla World Light as electricity serves as the raw material for animation. Rankin’s technique, called “light painting,” draws with white light and plays with exposure to capture the lasting impression of illumination. The production design is an abstract coup of jagged rays of light—a kind of expressionism that jolts with the subject’s creative energy. There’s also a fascinating element of documenting the presence of light as something tangible, but the flickering images, like Tesla’s own flashes of genius, are hauntingly ephemeral. This experimental fantasia, a collage of animation, loosely interpreted facts, and creative license, imagines Tesla’s mind with inspired vision.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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