This is the début feature of writer-director Ena Sendijarevic, a Bosnian filmmaker based in Amsterdam. The film has had a successful festival run around the world, garnering prize nominations, including wins in its two ‘home’ festivals of Rotterdam and Sarajevo. It’s a road movie and ‘coming of age’ drama that includes many familiar elements but presents them in fresh and ‘refreshing’ ways. Several reviews have referred to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (US 1984) because of its low budget and three characters on a trip to the sea, each of whom are ‘finding themselves’. I haven’t seen the Jarmusch since its first UK screening in 1984 so I was more taken by similarities to two other similar road movies, Alfonso Cuaron’s Y tu mamá también (Mexico 2001) and Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar (UK 2002). I mention all three films simply to make the point that they each make use of familiar elements but in very different ways and in different settings.
Ena Sendijarevic elects to use a 1.33:1 ratio image in colour – and the bright pastel colours are part of the film’s visual appeal. Cinematography by Emo Weemhoff, who also shot Ms Sendijarevic’s successful short Import (2016), is striking in its manipulation of space and use of angles. It is at times also lyrical in presenting summer in Bosnia. The plot is relatively simple in outline. Alma is a young woman living with her mother in the Netherlands and together they have decided that she should visit Bosnia for a holiday and also try to visit her father who is sick in a hospital. We get the impression that Alma has grown up in the Netherlands and may never have known her father or only has vague memories from early childhood. We don’t learn Alma’s age but she could be anywhere between 18 and 23. In the opening scene she is with her mother trying to decide between two summer dresses to take on her trip. There will be several other images and actions that represent her sense of having two identities and her difficulty in deciding how to reconcile the two.
In Bosnia she is expecting to stay with her cousin Emir who has a flat in a tower block. He turns out to be unemployed but somehow always busy with schemes and seemingly reluctant to help Alma. Fortunately he has a sidekick (an ‘intern’ as the subtitles put it) called Denis who is more friendly. Even so, Alma decides to try to find her father in hospital, travelling across country by bus. Alma experiences several setbacks which she overcomes with remarkable calmness. She is an attractive young woman but ‘down to earth’ – sensible and playful in equal measure. Eventually the two young men catch up with her and the trio continue their journey. Alma’s twin identities are reflected in the different dreams of the Emir and Denis. Emir is proud to be Bosnian, Denis wants to get away. The crucial thing about the film for many reviewers seems to be that the film isn’t typical of Balkan films that are about the aftermath of war, the yearning for migration or indeed ‘dark’ drama of any kind. (The names Emir and Denis mirror the Muslim/Christian balance in the population but this isn’t an issue.) Instead the film focuses on the personal stories of its three young characters who have universal concerns. There are dark moments, especially towards the end when they finally get to the sea, but there are also fun times and I’m not going to spoil the adventures of the three. Later, I read an interview by the director stating clearly that she wanted to avoid the ‘social-realist’ image of a ‘victimised’ Bosnia. She succeeds in this and she says her next picture will be:
. . . about the feminine side of the colonial oppression of Indonesia by the Dutch – the female experience, so to say. It will be quite a surreal, fantastical, absurdist horror comedy. [Laughs.]
The film’s music by Ella van der Woude won a festival prize and there are diegetic tracks of local popular music. I’m too old to be able to comment on this but I enjoyed the film, which at 91 minutes seems about the right length. The three young leads are all good as quite different characters, but it’s really Sara Luna Zoric as Alma who ‘owns’ the film. I imagine that she got on well with her young director and the whole film seems to have gone down well with younger audiences in both Amsterdam and Sarajevo. It’s an encouraging début film and well worth looking up on MUBI where it will be available for the next three weeks.
Film producers have always copied ideas from producers in other countries. At one time, they made films in ‘multiple versions’ – especially in the 1930s when three different versions of the same script in different languages might be made almost simultaneously by different casts and crews. Much later, highly commercial production outfits in India and Hong Kong would simply copy hit Hollywood films without worrying too much about rights. Hollywood itself has frequently re-made both European and Asian films, often on the simple basis that American audiences won’t read subtitles. Sometimes this works commercially and the films themselves are not bad at all (e.g. the J-horror retreads such as The Ring 2002). Sometimes the remakes are complete disasters. Most of the time, American producers have been fairly open about their ‘borrowings’ but in recent years they’ve begun to recognise that some audiences are determined to remind others via social media that a film is a remake and that usually the original is better. The producers pre-empt this by claiming it isn’t a ‘remake’, but instead a different adaptation of the original novel/play/script etc. I’ve written about this issue a few times. I found the splutterings of the Coen Brothers particularly annoying when they claimed their version of True Grit (2010) was a completely different adaptation of the Charles Portis novel than the 1969 version by Henry Hathaway starring John Wayne.
I suppose what worries me more is the ease with which Hollywood simply ignores previous versions of film ‘properties’, presenting its own version as something ‘new’ and ‘original’. The latest case in point is The Dinner (US 2017). I should note here that technically, this American film is not a studio film and therefore not ‘Hollywood’. It is officially an independent but has a star cast of Richard Gere, Rebecca Hall, Steve Coogan and Laura Linney as two couples (the men are brothers) meeting for a regular meal in a posh restaurant and faced with a disturbing act committed by their teenage sons. I’ve read/listened to several reviews which mention that the film is based on a 2009 Dutch novel by Herman Koch, but none of the reviewers mention that the novel has already been adapted twice, first in the Netherlands in 2013 and then in Italy in 2014 as I Nostri Ragazzi. I’ve only seen the Italian version which I thought interesting but flawed. Reviews for the American version have generally been negative. My impression is that the Press Notes will not have mentioned either of the previous film adaptations and will just present this film as an adaptation of the original novel. The truth is that in the UK we generally ignore both Dutch and Italian cinema – much as we ignore most European media output. I doubt I’ll get the chance to see the American film but I certainly think that the Italian film would have been worth releasing in the UK. I fear for the blinkered approach to anything outside the Anglosphere that we live in – and which has contributed to our pathetic attempt to withdraw from Europe.
The Dutch version:
The American version:
Confession time – when I booked for this film at the Leeds International Film Festival, I thought it was Vanishing Point (US 1971)! It’s all part of the fun of festivals. Sometimes you go to a screening just because you are already at the cinema and you don’t have to be anywhere else. In this case, I’m glad I made the mistake as I enjoyed the film which I didn’t see on its release. I did eventually remember something about both this film and its Hollywood remake by the same Dutch director – but with a stupid change to the film’s resolution.
The Vanishing is a psychological thriller built around an initial frightening occurrence and then a mystery with a psychological underpinning. I’ve seen comments that this is a very scary/frightening film. I’m not sure it is ‘scary’ but it is disturbing, entertaining and intriguing and the ending is definitely not to be revealed in case there are others like me who haven’t already seen it. The Vanishing has been re-released in the UK as part of the BFI Thriller touring season and there is a little mystery attached to the release. In 1990, the first UK release was given a ’12’ certificate. A year later the video was certificated as ’15’ and all subsequent releases have been ’15’s. The new DCP release for cinemas is 13 seconds longer than the 1990 release (the video timings have all differed by a minute or two). Is there something in those 13 seconds of real significance? It is unusual for a film to be re-classified upwards in this way.
The film narrative begins with a young couple looking forward to cycling in France during the time of the Tour de France. They drive down from Amsterdam with their bikes on the roof. They seem deeply in love but soon have a tiff before quickly making up. At a rest-stop near the city of Nîmes in Languedoc they become separated when Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) goes to the shop to buy drinks and doesn’t return. Rex (Gene Bervoets) soon becomes frantic but he can’t get the police to do anything immediately and Saskia seems to have just disappeared.
In the second part of the film the narrative seemingly moves forward and Rex has moved into a new relationship. But he can’t forget Saskia and he still makes visits back to Nîmes looking for traces of her. During this period we are introduced to Raymonde (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) who we suspect might be the cause of Saskia’s disappearance or might at least know something about it. Much of the narrative information we get comes from what appear to be flashbacks. Eventually Raymonde and Rex will meet but I won’t reveal any more if you are going to watch the film for the first time.
The Vanishing sets up several interesting psychological challenges. The original novel by Tim Krabbé had the title The Golden Egg and this seems to refer to a dream that Rex has some time after Saskia’s disappearance and which he tells an interviewer is the same dream that Saskia had the night before she disappeared. In the dream the couple are together in outer space inside a golden egg. Rex has an obsession about finding Saskia which mirrors Raymonde’s darker obsession. Cycling and chess are two of Tim Krabbé’s interests and both feature in the film, the first as background and the second symbolically in the psychological struggle between Rex and Raymonde. Many films are said to draw on Hitchcock but I think The Vanishing has a real claim to do so effectively. Strangers on a Train and Marnie are two different titles that seem to share some elements with Krabbé’s novel and the film by George Sluizer.
Sluizer was born in France but as far as I can see spent his working life in the Netherlands. I was struck by this co-production which indeed did seem both French and Dutch with an interesting language exchange involving Saskia trying to speak French. The two locations feel different and so do the actors. Raymonde reminded me of characters in several French films, not just with his mysterious obsession, but also because of the insights into his childhood and his relationship with his family. We learn a lot less about Rex’s background. This means there are ‘holes’ in the plot. For instance, why is no one concerned about Saskia’s disappearance – doesn’t she have parents, siblings? That would complicate things of course. Raymonde’s family (two daughters) serves a double function. First, it enables him to develop some techniques and test out ideas on his wife and daughters in a seemingly innocent way and secondly his status as a loving family man to some extent diverts suspicion from him as a sociopath. All three lead actors are very good but I was fascinated by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu and surprised that I haven’t seen him in other films.
Jeff Bridges as the Raymonde character and Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock as the couple feature in the remake which flopped. When will they ever learn? Never of course, because on some occasions it works (The Ring/Ringu?) and makes a lot of money. Keeping the same director means nothing if the producers have specific ideas for the American market. The Dutch original seems like a valid re-release for the UK and I hope a lot of young people are disturbed by the film (and have fun with it too).
Layla M. was perhaps the most topical film to appear in the London Film Festival in 2016. It tells the tale of a young Moroccan-Dutch woman who becomes ‘radicalised’ and travels to an unnamed Arab country to support her husband. It’s a film I find difficult to write about. During the film I was caught up in Layla’s anger and commitment but afterwards I wondered about her single-mindedness and whether she was sensitive to other voices. In the Q&A that followed the screening, I was aware of being pulled in different directions (see below). It is a tribute to the skill of director Mijke de Jong and her leading actor Nora el Koussour that I was so taken with the character.
Layla is in her last year at school in Amsterdam and her (lower?) middle-class family expect her to do well in her exams and to start university. However, she is becoming increasingly angry about the persecution of Muslims in her society and her own struggles for ‘identity’. She has begun wearing the hijab in the face of moves to ban the veil in public life and she has joined a group of Muslim women making public demonstrations. An incident at a football match involving her father’s team is the beginning of her increased resistance to the racism she identifies in her local community and a well-scripted family melodrama reveals the divisions between Layla and her family including her less assertive brother who she tries to encourage to become more devout and more politically aware. Layla turns toward online friendships that later become face-to-face, particularly with Abdel, seemingly the leader of the young men associated with a local mosque. Eventually, she marries Abdel (as much for love as for solidarity and support) and the two decide to leave the Netherlands, travelling via Belgium to reach an unnamed country (identified as Jordan only via the credits and its border with Syria).
Once married Layla discovers that her husband expects her to stay ‘home’ in their sparse lodgings in the unnamed town while he becomes more and more involved in what looks like insurgency action. Frustrated, Layla attempts to link up with other wives in similar marriages and as the image above suggests, she finds some fulfilment working with children in a refugee camp – something her husband doesn’t know about. I won’t spoil the narrative any further in the hope that the film will become available in the UK.
‘Layla M.’ as a title refers to the way the central character might be known in the press or by security forces. It also suggests that Layla is a kind of ‘universal character’. In the Q&A that followed the film, the director said that she hoped it would be seen as a universal story and she agreed with the Festival Director Heather Stewart (who chaired the Q&A) in also seeing Layla’s story as being about gender as much as it was about religion or national/personal identity. So far, the film has only screened at the Toronto and London Film Festivals. In answers to questions Mijke de Jong said that she hoped that the film would be widely seen in the Netherlands and that she was confident that since she worked closely with the Muslim community in Amsterdam in developing the film that it would attract the viewers who could most identify with it. Many young Muslim women have already expressed an interest in the film via social media.
Some questions followed the “she’s a good person with bad ideas” line. I reject this. Layla’s own ideas are fine but aren’t thought through. Some of the questions/comments suggested that this film should be seen in the UK. I’d argue it should be shown and discussed in UK schools. I think it would be much more effective than the UK Government’s attempts at a ‘Prevent’ programme.
This was my big disappointment at the festival. It wasn’t that the film wasn’t great but that a beautiful 35mm film print turned up from the Dutch Film Museum sans English subtitles. The Hyde Park staff didn’t have time to check the print before the screening so all they could do after the first few minutes was to apologise and carry on for those brave souls (like me) who wanted at least to watch the film. This is one of those things that can happen at festivals with so many films to project from different formats and a constant stream of prints coming in and going out. I don’t blame the cinema. Fortunately, when I got home after the screening I was able to find almost the entire plot spelled out in detail in the ‘Low Countries’ book in the Wallflower Press 24 Frames series (2004).
The film was included in a festival strand dedicated to the ‘European origins’ of ‘Hollywood Greats’ – a slightly spurious title from my point of view since some the directors in question made European films before and after Hollywood exile that were as good as their American films. This was certainly true of Max Ophüls who was born into a Jewish family in Saarbrücken close to the German border with France. He was very successful as a young theatre director in Vienna and then moved into German-speaking cinema in 1929. His early films included the classic Viennese melodrama Liebelei (1933) after which he fled from the Nazis initially to Paris and most of his films up to 1940 were made in France apart from one in Italy and this film in the Netherlands. After four films in Hollywood (three of which were certainly very good) he returned to make four masterpieces in France before an early death aged 54.
Ophüls was most associated with romance melodramas but this film is primarily a form of social satire about the damage money can do to both a society and individuals/families. The protagonist is a relatively lowly bank clerk/messenger who one day loses a large sum of his employers’ money in transit – partly because he stops to talk to his brother-in-law (the process by which the money is lost is revealed at the end of the story). The clerk and his daughter are hounded out of their home and disgraced but then miraculously re-instated in a scam that sees the clerk installed as the magnate of a house-building company. At first he revels in his new wealth (and the daughter finds romance) but gradually he begins to suffer remorse and then nightmares. These finally drive him to confess his part in the scam and he is imprisoned – only to be released when the original money he lost is re-discovered.
Komedie om Geld offers almost a primer on the film styles of the early 1930s. Reported to be the most expensive Dutch film of its period (though costing less than German features), it wasn’t appreciated by the local audience (possibly too ‘German’ in its satirical gaze?). Given some leeway, Ophüls seems to have spent the money on elaborate studio sets and camerawork courtesy of Eugen Schüfftan, already a veteran of German Expressionism who would go on to work with Marcel Carne and others in France after his stints with Ophüls. Three different visual styles/elements combine in the satire. The ‘domestic scenes’ feature the kind of realism that would become better known in Renoir’s films of the period (though Schüfftan had worked on People on Sunday the 1930 film which showed the lives of ordinary Berliners). Ophüls’ depiction of the business world used the studio sets with deep focus – at least one shot reminded me of Citizen Kane. I confess that I did find it difficult to concentrate. I find an unfamiliar language is often as sleep-inducing as silence if there are no subtitles/intertitles. Therefore I didn’t really notice the length of shots or the use of tracking shots which would later became an Ophüls trademark. I did note however that the film displays many of the tropes of German expressionist cinema and especially in the nightmare sequence. In the 24 Frames book there is an interview with the Belgian filmmaker Harry Kümel who argues that the giant Ufa studio invested heavily in Dutch cinema. I’m not sure whether or not Komedie om Geld benefited from this. But what was clear to me was the use of the ‘MC’ (see the image at the head of the post) who introduces the different elements of the story and who presumably comments on the characters. A similar figure will appear in La ronde (France 1950) and Lola Montès (France 1955).
I’d like to see this again with English subs. There are various websites offering on-line viewing. I’m not sure of the legitimacy of these. There is also a Dutch DVD which is listed as having English subs so I may pursue that.
The title of this feature refers to the only sound frequency that one of the two deaf mute characters who form the central couple in the narrative can hear. I’ve read several reviews which name the precise sound that Nick can hear but I must have missed that. I spotted the moment when Evy remembered a sound she heard once. Clearly sound design has to be dominant in the film and it is quite unsettling to watch and not hear what we expect to hear. And yet, director Joost van Ginkel also strives to offer us rich visuals as well – as if to compensate? The reviews I’ve seen have been mixed, so perhaps some audiences think that he tries too hard. Van Ginkel comes out of shorts and TV and this is his first feature. It may be that he is focused more on sound and image and ideas than on narrative. Evy and Nick are young lovers. Again I’m not sure how some reviewers know the exact ages of the characters, but importantly Evy lives with her parents and her father in particular doesn’t approve of Nick. Nick is much freer. He works in a garage and sleeps in an old bus. He clearly doesn’t have any time for his own father – and there are scenes in which his revulsion is possibly explained. Both families are wealthy and it is summer so life isn’t hard for the lovers. They decide to run away and stay away long enough for Evy to become pregnant. At this point I was reminded of the Bergman film Summer With Monika. But the ‘journey’ that Evy and Nick make is much shorter – their place of refuge turns out to be an old submarine moored in a local inlet (and with buildings overlooking it).
I think van Ginkel is caught between wanting to create a conventional genre piece (and the film certainly plays with genre conventions, especially with Nick as the long-haired biker boy ‘rebel’ in leathers) and wanting to stay within a kind of arthouse fantasy. In the credits he reveals that he has borrowed ideas from both Krzysztof Kieslowski and Darren Aronofsky. I haven’t been able to work out what these might be but there is certainly a feel or ‘tone’ that the film strives for that might be related to the work of these auteurs. Genres like the youth picture are essentially realist in the sense that the young protagonists have to confront parents or the agents of authority and they must overcome obstacles, ‘learn’ from mistakes, achieve goals etc. In this film the protagonists run away but there is no sense that anyone is coming after them. A sub-plot sees Nick confronted by a trio of young bullies at a water polo game which promises something but is then easily ‘resolved’. Other confrontations appear to be fantasies and there is a danger the audience will lose patience with trying to read the final scenes.
The film certainly looks good. Gaite Jansen is an experienced young actor and she does a great deal with the part. Michael Muller has no other listed credits on IMDB and he plays his role in a deadpan manner most of the time. Nevertheless I thought they made an interesting couple. The main problem with the film is that there isn’t enough narrative meat to get your teeth into, there is no ‘peril’ and no idealism, they seem secure on their submarine and it is only their own adolescent tiffs that propel the last third of the film forward.