Jan 13, 2015

A Day at the Beach (1984)

Hebraic hebephile Roman Polanski and assassinated Dutch iconoclast Theo van Gogh are about as different as filmmakers and individuals as two people could be, with the former being a small and swarthy avant-garde auteur turned major Hollywood blockbuster director and the latter being a tall, blond, blue-eyed, and beer-gutted born subversive who never seemed to tame with age, but they both have one major thing in common and that is cinematically adapting the novel A Day at the Beach (1962) by Dutch writer and poet Simon Heere Heeresma. While most cinephiles and cineastes would probably assume Polanski’s version is infinitely superior, they would be oh so terribly wrong, at least in my less than humble opinion. To Polanski’s credit, he only penned and produced A Day at the Beach (1972), as he apparently opted to have his Danish friend Simon Hesera—a first-time filmmaker whose sole other film before giving up filmmaking altogether was the curiously titled documentary Ben Gurion Remembers (1973)—direct the film instead due to ‘extenuating circumstances’ in his own personal life. Indeed, the film was apparently originally intended as Polanski’s directorial follow-up to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and was only given to Hesera to direct after the director’s wife Sharon Tate and unborn son were there victims of the murderously maniacal Manson family. Receiving only a limited theatrical release in Europe and assumed lost by Paramount Pictures for 20 years due to a supposed ‘paperwork error’ until it was tracked down by the director in 1992, the Polanski version certainly had no influence on van Gogh’s version and thankfully so as a work that, although not featuring the novelty of Peter Sellers as a queenish queer store owner like the original adaptation, was certainly made to be filmed in its native language and location. Despite being adapted twice, Heeresma’s novel has ironically been described as an ‘unfilmable’ novel, yet Een dagje naar het strand (1984) aka A Day at the Beach is arguably the most mature, malignantly melancholy, aesthetically accomplished, and decidedly Dutch film ever directed. Van Gogh’s second feature following his pathologically politically incorrect anti-noir debut Lüger (1982) starring popular Dutch actor Thom Hoffman (Dogville, Black Book) as a fascist gangster who kidnaps and starts a loony love affair with a retarded heiress, the equally darkly humorous yet dejecting work follows the day in the life of a super cynical and sadistically shameless dipsomaniac who takes his crippled daughter for a play date at the beach where he spends most of his time scamming booze and getting drunk while constantly losing track of his poor progeny in the process. Like Ingmar Bergman meets Luis Buñuel in its curious cocktail of dark drama, unhinged humor, and even sometimes sardonic surrealism, A Day at the Beach demonstrates in a far from preachy and shockingly intricate sort of way why alcoholism is a fate worse than death and why a boozer should never get a broad pregnant, let alone attempt to raise a kid. 

 Bernd (Cas Enklaar) is such a pathetic and hopeless alcoholic that he wakes up still drunk from the night before on the day that he is supposed to take his estranged prepubescent crippled daughter Walijne (Tara Fallaux), who wears a leg brace, to the beach. Poor Walijne calls the antihero ‘Uncle Bernd’ as her mother Medusa (Helen Hedy) married another man named Carl (Emile Fallaux) who agreed to adopt the girl and call her his own before she was even born since her biological father is a good-for-nothing boozer who is just not father material. As Bernd thinks to himself before his disastrous playdate with his daughter, “Thousands have each other; I only have my drinking.” While talking with his ex-lover/baby-momma Medusa before taking Walijne out, Bernd causes the mother of his daughter to cry as it is clear she is depressed over the fact that she had to leave him for a banal old groveling cuckold like Carl. Notably, Bernd plays the old school video-game Frogger, thus reflecting his inability to give anyone his completely undivided attention, as well his propensity to engage in childish games. When Bernd meets with Walijne, they both give each other a huge hug even though the little girl thinks the man is her uncle and not her daddy. Unfortunately for both of them, this is the extent of how intimate their relationship gets as their ultimately botched day at the beach demonstrates. 

 Before even getting to the beach, Bernd is beaten in front of his daughter at the bus stop due to not paying an outstanding liquor tab he owes. Walijne does the best that a crippled little girl can do after he is beaten and Bernd seems to lap up the special attention. Although it is not exactly the best day to go to the beach due to the fact that it is rainy and dreary out, it certainly immaculately matches the melancholy yet strangely beauteous tone of the film. Upon arriving at the beach, Walijne soon gets lost playing in wicker chairs while Bernd is a approached by a blonde named ‘Babs’ who works as a waitress at her mother’s seemingly closed restaurant. Babs provides Bernd with bottle after bottle of beer and when he perversely recommends regarding the next bottle she brings out, “Warm it up under your armpit…or in another intimate spot” by stating absurdly that it is “an old custom, honored by the people I belong to,” the waitress’ mother asks the antihero, “How peculiar, are you Jewish perhaps?” in an unintentionally humorous fashion. Bernd takes the woman’s question as “an unexpected compliment” and then hallucinates her sitting in the lap of a young handsome blond SS officer while she describes how her father kept 25 Jews at her house during the Second World War. To get out of paying for all the bottles of beer he has drunk, Bernd accuses Babs and her mother of being prostitutes and runs away without paying. Indeed, if there is any talent Bernd has aside from being perennially inebriated, it is finding a way to get inebriated without having to pay a cent. 

 When Walijne loses a souvenir seashell that her father has given her, he goes to a seashell shop to buy her a new one where he is immediately repelled by the two owners, an elderly old gay queen and his overweight middle-aged beau who is missing one of his front teeth. When Bernd asks the old queen, “Hey you fag, do you sell beer?,” he agrees to get him some from his “private stock” for “such a charming man” and his fat beau goes in the back to get the booze. While the toothless queer is getting the beer in the back, the old queen complains to Bernd regarding his much younger lover, so the antihero helps the elderly poof by telling his beau when he gets back with the booze, “Each time he meets a nice little boy the most delightful…and promising contacts are ended by your vulgar appearance. You stink and even the mildest people would wish to punch you in the face…so, do change, Pipi.” While Bernd is happy to have gotten both a new seashell for his daughter and more beer, he is quite distressed when he notices his daughter is missing after leaving the store and, as the narrator of the film states regarding the alcoholic antihero, “He went cold with fear” because “You don’t lose a child like an old hankie.” Luckily, it does not take long for Bernd to find his progeny again, but he soon suffers the annoyance of a small elderly man calling him a “rat” for not paying to use wicker chairs on the beach, so he threatens to murder the old miserable fart and bury his bones in the sand. Before threatening the old man, Bernd asks him, “Does my lack of character show on my face that clearly?” thus reflecting his own rather low opinion of himself, as a man who has figuratively crawled into a beer bottle where he plans to ultimately die a most lonely and pathetic death. 

 Arguably, the true depth of Bernd’s moral bankruptcy is revealed when he bumps into his poet friend Nicholas who shows up at the beach in a tiny, goofy European automobile not much bigger than a bumper car with his reasonably attractive blonde wife Toni and their young and rather sickly seeming child. Among other things, Bernd coerces Nicholas into leaving his wife and child behind in the rain while they predictably take a drive to a local bar. It is clear that Bernd does not think much of Nicholas as both a poet and painter when he remarks to him, “Poets are most receptive and often drive their friends desperate. They listen so intensely to their inner voices…that they mistake a voice from outside…as coming from within them. To avoid this, Nicholas, I took your watch as…so that no woman can coerce you…which you’ll regret later!” On top of taking Nicholas’ watch, Bernd also lies to him and tells him that he will buy him his first round of beer. When Nicholas’ wife Toni arrives at the bar, Bernd begins kissing her passionately while his ‘buddy’ is passed out. Nicholas also tells Toni that her husband has “no personality at all” when she mentions that Nicholas wanted to try smoking heroin after hearing that Lou Reed did the same. Indeed, Bernd may be a boozing bastard but he certainly seems like more of an authentic poet and artist than Nicholas, who cannot even stop his wife from kissing another man right in front of him. While at the bar, Bernd also calls his daughter’s mother Medusa and states, “This morning I wanted to kiss you very hard on your lips,” thus revealing that, despite his rudeness to her earlier that day, the antihero actually loves Walijne’s mother and were it not for the fact that he was a self-destructive and nihilistic dipsomaniac, he might have actually made a serious attempt at becoming a husband and father instead of giving his only child to another man to raise. 

 After parting ways with Nicholas and his family, Bernd naturally makes his way to another bar and of course he leaves his daughter Walijne in the rain while doing so. At the bar, Bernd strikes up a conversation with an old white man from Ghana who he confides in by stating, “I drink because I have great sorrow…but mainly because I’m predisposed to it. I am not afraid of a hangover.” The old man is less interested in personal interests and responds by stating, “The British are the heaviest drinkers. The Americans too…but they are noisy anyway, drunk if sober. But you will not hear the English…and you will not notice anything.” When Bernd annoys the barmaid by mocking her dyed hair and comparing her less than favorably to negresses by stating to the old man, “Think of the negro girls in Ghana […] in which no calculation is hidden,” the antihero finds himself unwanted at the bar and inevitably leaves, soon finding Walijne outside being watching by a group of concerned old women. After coercing an old liquor store owner into selling him some beer after hours after proclaiming to have an ostensible “vitamin B deficiency,” Bernd, who is so drunk that he seems to be on the brink of alcohol poisoning, calls Walijne’s mother Medusa to let her know that he will be bringing their daughter home late. The next day, Bernd wakes up still drunk on the beach and he is rather shocked to learn that little Walijne is nowhere to be found. A Day at the Beach concludes with the following inter-title regarding the film’s perturbingly pathetic antihero Bernd: “A few stopped to look at him. Another eccentric training for the decathlon, cheering himself on. It occurred to nobody to impede this sportsman’s progress.” 

 Admittedly, I have an innate intolerance towards alcohol and alcoholics and I cannot fathom how someone can tolerate living the life of a drunkard, yet after watching the preternaturally compassionate work A Day at the Beach, I certainly feel that I can better understand what might inspire someone to crawl inside of a beer bottle and stay there. As someone who dropped out of law school due to drug and alcohol abuse and spent his entire life agitating people with his ruthless remarks, van Gogh unquestionably had a special understanding of the character Bernd in his film. Indeed, despite being oftentimes obscenely humorous, Theo van Gogh’s film is easily one of the most malignantly melancholy films I have ever seen and I have a feeling that it reveals more about the filmmaker’s true essence than any of his other cinematic works. I sincerely believe that had his assassin been able to absorb (which is rather unlikely) the sensitive yet equally biting emotions that van Gogh expressed in A Day at the Beach, he probably would have never been able to get the gall to murder the filmmaker in such a savagely sadistic and coldblooded fashion. Surely van Gogh’s film is all but infinitely superior to the version of Heeresma’s novel that Polanski penned, which is somewhat ironic considering one of the Dutch filmmaker’s favorite films was Repulsion (1965). As Annemarije Heijerman revealed in her article THEO VAN GOGH: Director, Storyteller and Auteur regarding Heeresma’s story, van Gogh had stated, “Why this story? Because it is brilliantly written, it is my guiding book,” thus highlighting his uncommon respect for the source novel. Interestingly, Heeresma also considered van Gogh’s version to be far superior to Polanski’s adaptation. Unlike Polanski’s film, van Gogh’s A Day at the Beach is dark in the way that could have only been made so by a true criminal, misfit, outcast, and subversive just like the antihero of the film who, like the director, was probably an intriguing person to be around, but brought trouble and destruction to wherever he went, hence his early grisly death. Apparently, van Gogh still stopped by to see the little girl that played the antihero’s crippled daughter years after the film was released, which does not surprise me as A Day at the Beach has a certain truly ‘idiosyncratic humanism’ to it that, despite van Gogh's lifelong tendency towards making hateful and misogynistic comments, also demonstrated that he truly loved people, especially those that no one else seemed to love.

-Ty E

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