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Floundering Dutch man

The Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht focusses on the insurmountable foibles of the male sex. By Jann Ruyters

A great poet is what he wants to be: a great poet and a great lover' says the voice-over in "'De Muze" (the muse), Ben van Lieshout's feature film that premiered this week at the Netherlands Film Festival (September 26-October 6). In 'De Muze', Van Lieshout follows the soul-searching journey of a young poet with writer's block. The young man roams the wintry streets of Rotterdam, takes shelter in toilets with a book, or sits on his hotel bed not knowing what to do next. He dreams about a woman who will come to him, make love to him silently, and then disappear again, unleashing an avalanche of verses in him.

All photos from "Duska" by Jos Stelling. Courtesy BFD

Alas. The young man gazes at his idol Monica Vitti in the cinema, runs into Vitti look-alike actress Tara Elders on the street, and still the verses refuse to flow. We all know the type, the ivory-tower poet who yearns for the muse to inspire him. The narrator in "De Muze" – derived from an early Coetzee novel – also knows that we know him. There's a malicious note in his voice when he mentions this yearning, as we watch the poet under the cold fluorescent light of the library at night – at the mercy of his empty existence.

But this lonely poet who, as the narrator informs us, is young but feels middle-aged, is a lot less alone than he thinks at this year's Film Festival in Utrecht. He has several kindred spirits wandering through the premieres, passive dreamers hoping for deliverance, preferably in the shape of a young woman, and preferably blonde.

The festival opened with "Duska," the new film by Jos Stelling. Stelling is the founder of the 'Netherlands Film Days', as the NFF was called then, 27 years ago. In "Duska", his first film in eight years, Stelling revisits the nostalgic universe of films like 'De Wisselwachter' (The Pointsman) and "De Illusionist" (The Illusionist). "Duska" is gloom-drenched film of few words. Even the tea and coffee glasses in their plastic holders look melancholic. See those archaic glasses; this life has been on hold for years.

Gene Bervoets plays Bob, an aging film critic in a grubby raincoat, who passes his days at the cinema and sleeps under black sheets at home. He has been working on a screenplay that is going nowhere so he starts spying on the blonde box-office girl at the cinema across the street. When this sniffy young lady somehow ends up at his house after all, their little rendezvous is interrupted by the appearance of an unexpected Russian guest Bob once met at a far-off film festival. And the affable Duska is not easy to shake. As the film progresses, reality and fantasy become increasingly blurred, especially for Bob. Paralysis takes over: once he gets the girl between the black sheets, all he wants to do is look at her.

Mild male self-mockery dominates in "De Muze" and in "Duska", as it does in "Sextet", the new Eddy Terstall film, a no-budget film about sex. Terstall is typically to the point. The six sex-stories are strung together by the comments of a Flemish film teacher (Gene Bervoets again, in a hideous leather jacket) who criticizes the structure of the film as well as its content: the more or less dysfunctional sex initiated by a ginger-haired geek in a midlife-crisis (yes, Terstall himself) who wants to act out his sexual fantasies, according to the teacher.

In the film's funniest episode ex-football player and TV personality Jan Mulder is in bed with a 24-year old fan who is massaging his ego after Jan has failed miserably. In the next episode the girl meets a new admirer in the form of the older, languishing actor Dirk Zeelenberg who to his own surprise releases something in her, even if he doesn't know why.

Dear oh dear. You can't help but worry about the Dutch man in 2007 after seeing these new films at the Netherlands Film Festival. The look-don't-touch dreamer who prefers the quest to the grail is a regular feature in Jos Stelling's films. And he crops up again in a slightly different guise in the films of Alex van Warmerdam, where the passive male gets nasty. Van Warmerdam's anti-heroes from "Abel' to "Ober" (Waiter) are no poets or dreamers. They are immature and deeply unpleasant characters with wandering eyes and hands.

Van Warmerdam's men have none of the gotta-luv-em factor that runs through Terstall and Stelling's films, or envelopes the elderly men seeking women in recent popular films like ''N beetje verliefd' (also in the running for a Golden Calf) and the Flemish box office hit 'Man zkt vrouw' (man seeks woman) where Jan Decleir is hot on the heels of his Romanian maid.

Self-mockery prevails in these new men's movies, but things never tip into unpalatability. Men will be men after all. Terstall is not shy about it: in the opening scene of 'Sextet' a brother makes a bet with his charming sister Lotje (Tara Elders) that she won't be able to make men reject her, no matter how stupid she plays. And he's right, only one man opts for his book over lovely Lotje's brainless oneliners. Terstall lets us laugh about it. This is the nature of the beast. The new man, like the old, needs a young girl, a muse, preferably blonde, preferably with little in her head. It is a weakness he recognizes warm-heartedly. We should not take this vice too seriously, but we will never rise above it.


Jann Ruyters is a film and literature critic for the Dutch newspaper Trouw.

The article originally appeared in
Trouw on September 27th, 2007.

Translation: Maggie Oates

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