Talking Movies: Recent films by Alex van Warmerdam

Family dynamics are a central theme in director van Warmerdam's films.
Family dynamics are a central theme in director van Warmerdam’s films.

With the recent conclusion of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the advertising blitz for Oscar night (yes, five months from now) can officially begin. While the top awards and appertaining press were about movies which told us how Europeans felt about American racial oppression–always appreciated,  Steve McQueen–we should not overlook the work of a lesser-known Dutch director who wants to tell us about how traditional Europeans view themselves. Borgman, Alex van Warmerdam’s new film, was previously a contender for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and made its North American debut at TIFF last month. Van Warmerdam has been around for a while, as director, actor, producer and scorer of about a half dozen of his own films in the last decade, and his newest was recently selected as the Netherlands’ entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.

Borgman is the story of an upper-class class Dutch family who offers shelter to a transient man, who subsequently pushes them to do or allow him to do things not within their normal social code, or indeed within any conventional sense of morality–like killing people for fun. In interviews, van Warmerdam frames its focus in terms of seeing what sorts of evil everyday people can do in circumstances which are largely un-extraordinary. Borgman has been associated with similar themes in Yorgos Lanthimos’ recent movies, and though van Warmerdam seems somewhat more concerned with domestic relationships and social class, the same emphasis on absurdity and a dark surrealism are certainly present.

Family themes have also overtly pervaded van Warmerdam’s other recent work. In his 2009 film, The Last Days of Emma Blank–maybe most familiar to American audiences–cousins sleep together, a matriarch makes her husband wear fake mustaches, a dog with a Buck Owens haircut drinks a lot of Amstel Light and a cousin trims swastikas into the front yard. The setting is a water-side country house of a prosperous bourgeois family, wherein the matriarch is dying of an unspecified disease that might be cancer. She has made a bizarre promise to her immediate family that they may divide her wealth after her death if they care for her as house servants during her final weeks. Her daughter becomes the chamber maid, her sister the cook, her husband the houseman. They must wait on her hand and foot, no matter how unusual or demeaning her requests. She demands eels for breakfast and then, when they make her ill, the servant-family stands around to watch her vomit. 160 years ago, Karl Marx told us that money and the capitalist economy will always destroy families as familial love necessarily gives way to the demands and divisions of the labor system. Emma Blank reminds us that even inheriting money can be a ton of work for a family.

American filmgoers may be hard-pressed to come up with an analogue for a similar surrealist tradition in our cinema, especially one that is longstanding or not oriented to the horror genre. Van Warmerdam’s references seem to be largely to a European comedy of the absurd that satirizes class relationships and larger political issues. The extreme absurdity of the Blank’s family dynamic inescapably reminds us of Buñuel, and the scene in which dog-man Theo goes out to poo would likely make Pasolini smile. But being Dutch, van Warmerdam is less overtly political and more concerned with social dynamics on a smaller scale.

Despite their darkness, van Warmerdam’s films are also quite funny, with a deadpan aesthetic in which the characters act largely unaware of the ridiculousness of their situations. In both these films, van Warmerdam asks interesting questions about maternity, about the social obligations of family and about whether dislike or outright betrayal of family members makes you evil, as well as whether your human obligations extend to family members widely hated by the rest of the family. Most of van Warmerdam’s catalogue is available online. Somewhat strangely, Borgman is the first Dutch nomination to the Academy Awards in several decades; it will appear in American theaters beginning in 2014.

Warren Sprouse teaches in Cedar Rapids. He feels Bud Selig should consider an earlier retirement.