Nov 2, 2012


With 20% of its landmass and 21% of its population located below sea level, and 50% of its land lying less than one metre above sea level, the Netherlands is a tiny nation that has been historically ravaged time and time again, so it is only natural that its inhabitants would have an atavistic aversion to water and the sea; or at least that seems to be the case with Dutch avant-garde filmmaker Frans Zwartjes as vividly depicted in his feature-length film Pentimento (1979); a quasi-erotic and pseudo-exploitative ‘horror’ film where cold oceanic blues dominate the film's aesthetic, and an assortment of Adam’s ale, sweat, urine, blood, and vaginal lubrication become characters unto themselves. Of course, Zwartjes – a rather eccentric fellow whose morbid, proto-goth/death rock film aesthetic was largely influenced by his experience working in mental institutions – is no doubt not afraid of all forms of water as he is a fervent nudist who enjoys voyeuristically gazing at beautiful women’s bearded clams on the seaside as he explained quite adamantly in the documentary De grote tovenaar (2006) aka The Great Magician directed by Ruud Monster, but Pentimento is certainly no day at the beach with its severely salacious portrayals of sexual violence and sadism. Featuring a feverish and foreboding musical score that tingles one's spine and takes prisoner of one's soul, and set to a globalist post-industrial wasteland where beautiful Nordic women are nefariously encroached, experimented on, and eventually disposed of like common trash by Japanese scientists with a positively prurient poise, Pentimento is probably the closest thing to an ‘Actionist Thriller’ and the sort of film jaded Jap cannibal Issei Sagawa – who became a minor celebrity in his homeland after murdering, molesting, and munching on a female Dutch student – would yank his yellow yoo-hoo too. 

 Although a country well known for its painters and artists, especially of a magnificently morbid and metaphysical sort, The Netherlands has produced few filmmakers of notoriety aside from Paul Verhoeven (Turkish Delight, Robocop) and possibly Rene Daalder (Massacre at Central High, Population: 1), but both of these directors would emigrate to the United States and, at least to some extent, Americanize their aesthetic, so Frans Zwartjes makes for a notable exception. As a musician (playing viola for the Dutch opera), draughtsman, violin maker, painter, sculptor, academic professor and all around creative renaissance man of sorts, it was only natural for Zwartjes to be one of the first Dutchmen to embrace film as a serious and legitimate artistic medium (although initially using it to document performances) and he would ultimately approach filmmaking as a Dutch Master painter would with a certain meticulousness of the mise-en-scène of misery that entrances the viewer in a manner like they have never endured before. After completing a series of delightfully daunting and seemingly plot-less, bodacious and bleak black-and-white shorts oftentimes starring his young student wife Trix Zwartjes (who he met while teaching “Non-Applied Design” at Eindhoven Academy), including Birds (1968), Anamnesis (1969), and Visual Training (1969) – audacious awe-inspiring works that would ultimately inspire me to become enamored with the avant-garde auteur – Zwartjes would eventually experiment with color in the short with the chilling, aesthetically and thematically frigorific, bluish gray-toned short Living (1971); an unwelcoming yet weirdly wanton depiction of the biting barrenness of bourgeois life. Although still experimenting with black-and-white film stock (Audition, Bedsitters), Living would hereafter act as a rudimentary model for what would be Zwartjes most accomplished effort, Pentimento; a feature-length work with a discernible, if discordant, narrative set in a terribly technocratic building of emotional sterility where sadomasochistic Japanese scientists perform seemingly preposterous and patently perverted procedures on Dutch girls. 

 Featuring authentic scenes of unflattering female masturbation and a variety of other fecund unfriendly scenarios of noticeably feeble ladies in exceedingly perilous and lethally lecherous situations, Pentimento eventually caught the attention of The Netherland’s more militant, sexually-repressed, and intrinsically lesbian feminist population (unfortunately for the Dutch, dastardly dyke Andrea Dworkin decided to move to Amsterdam in the early 1970s), thereupon condemning the film for perceived misogyny and whatnot and bitchily bombarding a Rotterdam screening of the film. As the son of a nun that had fallen from grace who helped her boy survive starvation through the Second World War and a masculine father (an amateur boxing champ) who died while his scion was just a schoolboy, Zwartjes most certainly had an unconventional childhood where the feminine touch was the prevailing force of family, so, if anything, the prolific filmmaker probably had a special empathy and esteem for the fairer sex, even if in an erratically visceral, vicarious, and vehemently veiled manner as depicted in Pentimento; a certainly clandestine cinematic work with a seemingly effortlessly effete command. Using mere glances and symbolism to tell a sibylline story of female servitude and slavery carried out by tiny yellow men with serious cases of small man’s complex who commit ungodly acts of surgical and sexual sadism, Zwartjes demonstrates innate sensitivity towards the sanctity and sensuality of the female gender, albeit from an inordinately opaque outsider’s perspective.

With its audacious audience-antagonistic artistry, vague allusions to the Japanese experimentation Unit 731 – a place infamous for carrying out some of the most depraved war crimes committed during the Second World War – and the sexual sadism of Sagawa, Pentimento is not the sort of film that many Hollywood-spoonfed, multiculturally-enriched filmgoers will be able to stomach, but of course Zwartjes’ goal with the film was obviously not to yield to vulgarian viewers. Resembling Italian auteur Alberto Cavallone’s Blue Movie (1978) and Blow Job (1980) in its arcane approach to expressing the more labyrinthine motivations behind human licentiousness and callousness and excessive impenetrable essence of works like Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1972) and Day of the Idiots (1981) by German auteur Werner Schroeter but to a more flagrant degree, Pentimento – of which the title literally means the alteration of an artist work, evidenced by traces of previous work – is ultimately a work about the progressive terrorizing and mutiliation of the female body by a Japanese doctor with an unhealthy obsession with designer high-heel shoes. When it comes down to it, only Frans Zwartjes can truly understand the artistic intent behind Pentimento, but if there is one thing we can be sure of it is the filmmaker’s determinedly indefatigable artistic forthrightness in turning personal fantasy and nightmare into cinematic reality. 

-Ty E

1 comment:

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I like the shot of the bird rubbing her clit.