Netherlands (113 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: Alex van Warmerdam Website
Netherlands (113 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: Alex van Warmerdam Website
They descended upon earth to strengthen their ranks. —opening inner title sequence
Van Warmerdam continues his obsession with surreal black comedies that border on the absurd, where this one assumes near comic book proportions as it is essentially a politely told extra-terrestrial earth invasion movie, told with a deadpan humor and a playful spirit that borders on the ridiculous, where one wonders how this was chosen among the elite films to premiere in competition at Cannes, the first Dutch film in 38 years to do so. Playing out more like a bedtime story for adults, though it has a captivating, near hypnotic effect on children, the story concerns oddball characters that we might find in a Kaurismäki movie, including the director himself who plays one of the intrusive “visitors.” Earth is apparently under siege by strange and eccentric characters that we initially see sleeping underground, but at present there are only a handful of them, and only a few know about them, as they’re able to move undetected among earth’s population by disguising themselves as ordinary humans, often dressed in snappy suits. Much like Yorgos Lanthimos’s acclaimed DOGTOOTH (2009), this film has a vernacular and story logic all its own, but many will be hard pressed to make anything out if it. A cult film even upon its release, it likely falls into the acquired taste category, as its zany horror antics grow tiresome and nonsensical after awhile. While it may be some sort of commentary on the evils of the bourgeois upper class society, who have all presumably lost their souls, this film suggests there are many laying in wait to inhabit the emptiness left behind. “There’s something surrounding us. It slips inside now and then,” a worried wife tells her husband, as if the forces of evil are already upon them, but only unleashed a bit at a time so as not to arouse suspicion.
The opening has an almost medieval feel to it, as we see a man swallowing whole a jar of pickled fish before heading off into battle, led by a determinedly solemn, axe-wielding priest, as they storm through the forests giving chase to spirits or demons or subterranean creatures that communicate by cell phones. Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), a beady-eyed wretch of a monster with straggly hair and a sunken face that makes it look like he could be hundreds of years old, is the leader who has to warn all the others who apparently have their phones on sleep mode, unearthing their underground lairs with his own axe while leading them to safety, where they all escape. Still encrusted with dirt, he finds himself in the affluence of suburbia ringing doorbells asking if he can take a bath, where the overall impression he makes is not very inviting, getting kicked senseless by one offended resident, Richard (Jeroen Perceval), who apparently speaks for the entire community. However later that evening when Richard is away, the apologetic wife Marina (Hadewych Minis), apparently shamed by her husband’s behavior, invites him in and offers him food and shelter, so long as he keeps out of sight of her husband, where her sheer goodness opens the door for eventual calamity. The family also consists of three television engrossed children and a lethargic Danish nanny that already appears hypnotized. While the story concerns the strange and hypnotic powers of the otherworld, Marina’s constant state of flux, secret attraction to Borgman, and overall instability carry the emotional weight of the film, where we often wonder if she’s one of them, as she’s continually making things easier for them. Quickly ridding the family of their gardener, Borgman gets a hair trim and a shave and quickly takes his place, bringing in a few accomplices that live in a utility shed in the back. In no time, they’ve converted this architecturally impressive suburban home to their home base of operations, often assuming the shape of hounds, while hypnotizing women and children.
The director himself plays one of Borgman’s many helpers (Ludwig), all of whom look like members of the Leningrad Cowboys, who happen to be a satiric invention of Aki Kaurismäki, eventually becoming an internationally acclaimed Finnish rock band that continues even today to tour the world. If only they were that much fun, as whatever enjoyment the viewers might initially have with this madcap group of eccentrics quickly wears thin when we discover they’re little more than a group of professional assassins, an intergalactic mafia, where we see a collection of bodies accumulating at the bottom of the lake, faces head down in a pile of cement, feet dangling upwards, swaying with the current. So whatever silly antics we thought we were enjoying is actually a sadistic group of supernatural killers without a hint of remorse or human empathy. Once this becomes inherently clear, all the silliness stops being amusing, yet the absurd tone continues throughout till the end. In effect, this turns out to be an extended version of a highly artificialized, yet thoroughly malicious Brothers Grimm Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, a continuation on earlier themes that began with van Warmerdam’s particularly gruesome earlier film GRIMM (2003). But like that film, this one is also erratic, never really establishing a serious overall theme, as sinister clues are everywhere, while certain developed storylines go nowhere, and the subject never really connects or comes alive with the audience. When Marina proclaims “We are the fortunate, and the fortunate must be punished,” it’s like the rallying cry opening the apocalyptic gates for ultimate destruction. With Richard adding his own voice, registering that disaffected lack of concern that we find detestable about the One Percent, “We’re from the West, it’s affluent. That’s not our fault,” it feels overly simplistic and all too easy. This is a film for people with marginal attention spans, which may be a reflection on our modern culture, as afterwards it’s all nearly forgotten anyway except for the prevailing atmosphere of weirdness. The descent from dark comedy to depraved horror is a nasty twist designed for provocative effect, but feels surprisingly empty.