Documaker Melody Gilbert’s “Whole” deals with a tiny group of people obsessed with the need to remove a limb — usually a leg — from their bodies. Conventionally made but also bypassing the trap of turning the subject into something that belongs in a carny show, pic’s great achievement is being able to shine light on this ultra-dark corner of the medical avant-garde, and draw out undoubtedly reluctant subjects to talk on camera. This is the sort of talking-point docu that fests adore, but commercial paths appear limited, even in deep cable.
Dr. Michael First terms the condition, which lacks a proper medical name, “a disorder that’s completely off the map in the medical and psychiatric communities.” The doctor stresses the disorder has little to do with apotemnophilia, involving the sexual fantasies of losing limbs dramatized in David Cronenberg’s “Crash.” What helmer Gilbert finds, despite the lack of a term, is a real problem shared mostly by men, who appear otherwise cogent, thoughtful and even unusually intelligent.
Baz, a middle-aged Liverpudlian and one of pic’s sharpest subjects (and who, like most of these men, request to be known by first name only), was so fed up with his left leg that he stuck it in dry ice to promote frostbite — and amputation. George Boyer, a computer whiz from central Florida, describes how he once tried to shoot off one of his legs. Dutchman Kees is known as a “wannabe” amputee, who frequently binds up his fully functioning left leg in order to simulate leglessness. Brit university teacher Kevin went so far as to arrange surgery of a healthy leg with surgeon Dr. Robert Smith, who agreed to perform the operation and soon became the subject of press and public inquiries.
“Whole” nicely combines hard journalism with human close-ups, such as the marriage rift between wannabe Dan Cooper and his alienated wife Jennie — an approach that would be perfectly at home on a segment of “Oprah.”
And though an evident sensitivity to the truly perplexing phenomenon is to the film’s credit, the psychological roots of the disorder are hardly explored. The result is a documentary inquiry that inquires only so far, then stops.
Vid lensing is basic and a bit underlit at times, with repetitive electronic music no help at all.