Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them. This episode: The Netherlands, Christmas 2013.
Let’s begin by openly acknowledging that thanks to the huge amount of content queuing up to be published on Europe’s Best Website, this is a rather peculiar time of year to be talking about Christmas in the Netherlands.
Nevertheless, the festive season is a particular treat for Dutch moviegoers, as there are not one but two holidays to be cinematically exploited. As you’d expect, there are films like the recent Midden In De Winternacht, featuring the adventures of Father Christmas and his reindeer. Over there, though, he’s known as The Kerstman, to distinguish him from his historical forebear St Nicholas. Sinterklaas, to give him his more popular title, has his own feast day in early December, and an entirely separate tradition of spin-off movies.
When The Belated Birthday Girl and I visited the southern Netherlands back in December, we’d unfortunately missed the theatrical run of the fifth entry in the current franchise, Sinterklaas en de Pepernoten Chaos. Happily, it’s easy enough to watch the first one – Sinterklaas en het Geheim van het Grote Boek – on DVD for a mere five euro. After Sinterklaas falls off a rooftop in what appears to be some sort of health-and-safety examination gone hideously wrong, he’s confined to a hospital bed for a while. The evil Dr Brein sees this as an opportunity to launch a turf war. In no time at all, she’s managed to get her hands on Sinterklaas’ Grote Boek – I’m assuming it’s some sort of equivalent of the naughty-and-nice list, but don’t expect me to do any research or anything – and used possession of this to take over his castle. Is the feast of St Nicholas doomed this year? It’s probably not too much of a spoiler to reveal that it isn’t, as Sinterklaas manages to put everything right again with the help of his PERSONAL ARMY OF NEGRO SLAVES.
Zwarte Piet has been a problematic component of the Sinterklaas legend for a while now. Some people would have you believe that Sinter’s little helper is the colour he is because of all that running up and down chimneys he does during the delivery of presents. But most people assume that he’s basically a light-hearted throwback to the era of slavery. As you can imagine, these days there are clashes between those who find Zwarte Piet an offensive stereotype who has no place in modern society (particularly when he’s portrayed by white people blacking up), and those who think he’s an integral part of the celebrations and should be left alone.
It’s fairly obvious which side of the debate writer/director Martijn van Nellestijn is on, given that in the Sinterklaas films there are dozens of Zwarte Piets, each one with a different function in the organisation – the delivery one, the PR one, the girl one and so on. If there’s one truly astonishing thing about Grote Boek, it’s how quickly you get used to the idea that a group of characters in blackface are effectively the heroes of the piece, what with Sinterklaas being out of action for half the film. For someone like me with zero emotional engagement in this bit of folklore, the problems with the film are more fundamental – it’s hammily acted, slackly edited, and shot on a low-quality digital system that means indoor scenes contain more motion blur than actual image. There’s a feeling of will-this-do about the whole enterprise, even if it is a film largely aimed at children: I suspect kids have much higher standards than these, no matter where they live.
Sinterklaas was long gone from cinemas by the time we arrived. Most of the multiplexes were taken up with the expected global holiday fare of Hobbitry and Hungergamery, but there were a few local productions on show too. And I couldn’t resist the prospect of Bro’s Before Ho’s, even with those greengrocers’ apostrophes (they appear to be standard practice when English words are loaned to the Dutch language). They had me at the tagline “de romantische comedie van de makers van New Kids,” and if you’ve read my previous despatch from Eindhoven then you’ll know why. The New Kids films were a flat-out assault on common decency, so what would happen when their writer/directors Steffen Haars and Flip van der Kuil took on one of the safest genres in cinema?
The two bros of the title are Max (Tim Haars) and Jules (Daniel Arends), theoretically brothers even though they appear to be of different races. (Different dads? Adoption? Casting colour-blindness? Blacking up again? At some point I really should look into that.) Max can’t pick up women to save his life, a problem that Jules simply doesn’t have, even when he turns up at fancy dress parties in a Hitler costume. Max finally meets a nice girl at the video store where he works – Anna (Sylvia Hoeks), a care worker at a special needs home. It all seems to be going well until Jules shags her. Trouble ensues.
If nothing else, Bro’s Before Ho’s is a fascinating insight into the Dutch cinema rating system. Like the New Kids films, it has all the blobs on the poster – the Kijkwijzer symbols for contentious content warn about sex, language, violence, discrimination, drugs and horror, all of which are present here. But unlike New Kids’ prohibitive 16 certificate, Bro’s only has a 12 rating. The sexual content is pretty full on (including total male nudity), and the language sounds rough (the opening scene has the Bros’ dad refer to their mum as a ‘kut hoer’, and even I can work that one out). So I’m guessing that it was New Kids’ overenthusiastic violence that got it the higher rating.
Unfortunately, overenthusiastic violence turns out to be the one thing that Steffen and Flip can do really well. Take that away, and you’re left with a charmless sex comedy lacking in the visual oomph that made New Kids work regardless of language. It’s made even queasier by the use of Anna’s work with special needs patients to make Max look cool and sympathetic by association, despite all the rest of the evidence of his character, and I don’t want to make this the third Monoglot Movie Club in a row to throw in an oblique comparison to Ricky Gervais’ Derek but dammit it’ll have to be. It does lead to the best single comic idea of the whole film – having a group of mentally handicapped people re-enact a scene from Anna’s favourite movie, a concept they’re so proud of that it’s repeated in several variations over the closing credits. But even then, the film doesn’t have quite enough enthusiasm for the idea to carry you over its obvious tastelessness.
The other film we caught on our visit was a comparative oddity: a Dutch film that required Dutch subtitles for general audiences to understand it. How so? Well, we were spending Christmas in a couple of towns in Limburg province in the southern Netherlands, a region with a distinct dialect all of its own. Which meant that the release of Hemel op Aarde was quite a big deal – a rare example of a movie shot in the region, and featuring Limburgish dialogue throughout.
It’s 1979, and teenager Bart (Bram van Schie) is having the sort of hard time that teenagers in the movies usually have. He’s a reluctant altar boy at the local church, presumably at the bidding of his overly religious mother – dad seems to care more about getting hold of the latest AV equipment. He doesn’t have many friends, and the few he has sneer at him for his obsession with the movie Grease. All this changes with the sudden arrival of a Belgian family, opening up a new type of business in the neighbourhood: a video rental shop. Bart becomes smitten with their daughter Moniek (Ella-June Henrard), but the only way he can get to her is by befriending her brother Peter: and with his long hair, leather jacket, and offhand approach to the principles of Catholicism, he’s obviously a wrong ‘un.
The first on-screen credit at the start of Hemel op Aarde is for director Pieter Kuijpers: the second is for the band Rowwen Hèze, one of the biggest acts performing in Limburgish today. The focus on their music makes this feel a little like the film Känn Ingen Sorg that I reviewed a few months ago: it’s not quite a jukebox musical, but it uses the songs to key off the emotional direction of the film. And as with the Swedish movie, that direction is difficult to pin down. It starts off as a coming-of-age romance, with some decent laughs coming from Bart’s religious ideas getting their first challenge from the secular outside world. (This involves him making a lot of direct appeals to God: as The Belated Birthday Girl pointed out, at least half of the budget of this film must have gone on crane shots.) But the romance pays off suspiciously early in the story, whereupon Bart’s life starts to fall apart spectacularly.
I may not speak Dutch, but Catholic guilt is a universal language. It’s fairly clear that Bart believes everything bad that subsequently happens to him is all down to divine retribution. The BBG does speak a little, though, and revealed that Bart’s told on several occasions that he mustn’t think it’s all his fault. Nevertheless, the capper on his Job-lot of grief feels tackily manipulative, and colours your enjoyment of what came before. (There’s an implicit spoiler in the following link: this film, trailed as part of the same programme and released this weekend, goes into similar-looking areas but with an infinitely lighter touch. I dare you not to crack a smile at the trailer’s final sequence.)
As a self-confessed recovering Catholic, Hemel op Aarde pushed too many of my own personal buttons for comfort, and the descent into melodrama at the end lost me. But there’s a huge amount of charm in the early parts of the film: I particularly loved one sequence where Moniek entertains Bart with a massively inaccurate phonetic performance of You’re The One That I Want. (For comparison, imagine a Western film where someone tried to do something similar with Gangnam Style.) For all my love of transgressive humour, I’d take that scene over the blacked-up slaves and the special needs Rambo any day.