Feb 9, 2015


If any contemporary Dutch filmmaker has the talent and versatility to pull a Paul Verhoeven by leaving the Netherlands and creating well crafted big budget mainstream movies in Hollywood, it is big boorish bear auteur Martin Koolhoven (Suzy Q, De Grot aka The Cave) whose most recent effort, the World War II flick Oorlogswinter (2008) aka Winter in Wartime, was so popular in Holland that it managed to out-gross big blockbusters like Twilight (2008) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008).  Indeed, considering Verhoeven also first got Hollywood’s attention with a film about the Dutch resistance and the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Soldaat van Oranje (1977) aka Soldier of Orange (though the filmmaker made a couple more Dutch films before leaving), it almost seems like Koolhoven is following in the footsteps of his filmic father-figure. In fact, Koolhoven is currently working on an English-language ‘gothic western’ set for a 2015 release entitled Brimstone starring popular Australian-born Hollywood actress Mia Wasikowska and English-born Australian leading man and sex icon Guy Pearce. While Koolhoven certainly has a talent for making films that appeal to large eclectic audiences, his first ‘official’ feature (he had previously directed a couple reasonably successful TV movies) AmnesiA (2001) is a somewhat esoteric, oneiric, enigmatic, and quasi-Lynchian fever dream that would certainly not fare well with most American mainstream audiences, though somewhat ironically, it is the only one of the Dutch director's films to have received any sort of theatrical release in the United States. In fact, if I knew nothing about the director and watched AmnesiA, I would assume Koolhoven was attempting to be the opposite of the next Verhoeven by following in the tragic and disastrous footsteps of the Netherlands' most unruly and antisocial auteur, Adriaan Ditvoorst. Indeed, AmnesiA feels like a sort of ‘son’ film to Ditvoorst’s magnum opus De Witte waan (1984) aka White Madness, albeit more overtly and shamelessly Oedipal and a bit less arcane. Indeed, like White Madness, Koolhoven's film follows a perturbed artistically-inclined protagonist of the largely silent sort with greasy black hair who reunites with his estranged widowed mother at her dilapidated nightmarish home after a number of years of nil contact, but unlike in Ditvoorst's marvelously morbid masterpiece, the protagonist has an evil identical twin brother who he is eternally united with in a deep dark abyss of sin and unspeakable family secrets revolving around their parents. Whereas White Madness is largely an abstract work full of symbolic and oftentimes absurd imagery and cultivated literary allusions, AmnesiA is an arthouse murder mystery with a reasonably coherent story the unravels in front of the viewer in a fiercely foreboding and sometimes shocking yet equally darkly mirthful fashion, thus making it a much more accessible work that demonstrates Koolhoven’s special knack for meticulously woven cinematic storytelling. In other words, Koolhoven’s quite literally titled work begins as a hypnotic phantasmagoric haze and concludes in complete transcendental elucidation.

Alex (Fedja van Huêt of Mike van Diem’s Karakter (1997) aka Character and Erik de Bruyn’s Wilde mossels (2000) aka Wild Mussels) is a professional photographer of the highly introverted sort who is incapable of taking photos of people, especially women, because of something that happened to him while he was snapping pictures when he was just a teenager. A majorly melancholy mensch with a seemingly permanent scowl on his face that more than hints that he is irreparably internally wounded, Alex is more or less a meekly walking and barely talking lost soul that is still incapable of coping with a tragedy from his youth that he played a major role in. When Alex gets a phone call from his identical twin brother Aram (also played by van Huêt) who he has not seen or talked to in many years, his immediate reaction is to hang up as if he has just been contacted by a ghost, but his exceeding extroverted twin, who is not the sort of guy that takes "no" for an answer, immediately calls back and informs him that their mother (Sacha Bulthuis) is sick and is coughing up blood. Ultimately, their mother’s sickness is a pretense for Alex and Aram to reunite so that they can come to terms with something unsettling from their youth that they both played an integral part in that inevitably decided the very different courses that their respective lives would take. While Alex is a passive and even pathetic shell of a man who would probably refrain from fighting back if someone began violently raping him in the ass with a rusty machete, Aram is a cold, calculating, and charismatic psychopathic career criminal of the suavely-dressed deranged dandy sort who at the beginning of the film is involved in a semi-successful robbery that results in him and his depraved goofball partner-in-crime Wouter (Theo Maassen of Verhoeven’s Zwartboek (2006) aka Black Book) being wounded. In fact, Wouter spends the rest of the film succumbing to a stomach wound while hanging out Alex and Aram’s mother’s house and getting increasingly drunk to ease his plaguing death pangs.

After receiving the phone call from his twin about their mother’s ailing health late one night, Alex immediately begins driving to his family home and even falls asleep at the wheel on the way but luckily and somewhat inexplicably a strange busty black-haired beauty that has been inconspicuously hiding out in his backseat wakes him up before he crashes. Indeed, the girl’s name is Sandra (popular Dutch actress Carice van Houten of Verhoeven’s Black Book and Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie (2008)) and when she demands that Alex ask her why she is in her car, she absurdly responds, “It’s none of your business.”  Although they know absolutely nothing about one other, Alex and Sandra can tell that they are both lost souls and immediately become passionate lovers despite the fact that the protagonist is fairly lifeless otherwise.  In fact, when the first two have sex, Sandra has an otherworldly orgasm that brings a fiery spirit to her mostly spiritless body, thus reflecting that the two dead souls seem to be soul-mates.  As the viewer later learns, both Alex and Sandra are responsible for bringing misery to their fathers as a result of their actions. When Alex finally arrives at his mother’s home, it is revealed that it is an old junkyard called ‘AmnesiA’ with a large old falling down house that resembles a smaller but certainly more ominous version of the estate from Nothing But Trouble (1991). As Alex tells Sandra upon arriving home, he cannot remember the last time he saw his mother. Alex’s mother is an eccentric and seemingly half-senile hypochondriac who is afraid that she will die of a heart attack because her mother and grandmother died that way and incessantly drinks wine as a result because, as she states, “it’s good for your heart.”  While Alex is more or less gentle with his mother, Aram acts like a rabid animal to her, screaming at her, “Excuses! A good housewife always has beer for visitors” because she does not have fancy Chinese beer to offer him and his dying friend Wouter.  Although Aram lives with her, Alex's mother seems in complete denial of the fact that her nasty little psychopath of a son makes his living as a ruthlessly dedicated member of the criminal underworld.  In fact, Aram's mother does not even bother to ask her son why his friend is dying on her kitchen floor, as if it is a normal everyday occurrence.  During his first day there, Alex manages to avoid his brother but he cannot put off the auspicious reunion forever.

When Alex randomly meets Wouter, his brother’s friend remarks that he must be Aram’s brother and when he asks how he knows, he responds, “Right description: identical, but with a loser’s look on his face.”  Of course, Alex takes Wouter's insult like a little bitch. When Wouter asks Alex, “Which is the odd one out: Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha or Bhishma?” and the protagonist correctly responds Bhishma, Aram’s friend accuses him of guessing but the protagonist proves he is no moron by remarking, “Bhishma was invincible and could decide when he would die.”  Indeed, like Aram, Alex is a rather clever and sophisticated fellow, but unlike his tyrannical twin, he is deleteriously oversensitive.  Later that day, Alex accuses Aram of using a ‘pleonasm,’ so his evil twin makes him come up with a series of self-denigrating pleonasms about himself like “boring Alex” and “cowardly Alex.” Indeed, aside from acting somewhat passive-aggressive, Alex tolerates virtually all of his ‘big brother’s’ (Aram was apparently born a half an hour before Alex and thus absurdly considers himself to be the oldest brother, which he constantly brings up as a characteristically petty and frivolous means to maintain dominance over his twin) insults. Despite their differences, Alex and Aram are also remarkably similar in many ways, or as the latter remarks to Sandra, “We don’t meet for years and then have about the same haircut.” As the film will ultimately reveal, both brothers instinctively knew that their disharmonious reunion was more or less foretold.

While living at his mother’s house, Alex bizarrely begins taking on the role of his dead mechanic father Theo and, to the chagrin of his twin and to the delight of his mother, begins working on totaled automobiles even though he knows nothing about cars. As the story unfolds, it becomes quite clear that Alex has a lot of repressed guilt regarding his father’s mysterious death. One night, Aram gives Sandra an envelope full of vintage black-and-white photographs of the twins' father and a somewhat masculine black-haired female doctor (Carly Wijs) that were taken by Alex when he was a teenager. Apparently, Alex’s father was cheating on his mother with the female doctor and the twins decided to come up with a plan to stop the affair that ultimately resulted in the deaths of both the doctor and their father, which is something that the protagonist still cannot cope with after all these years.  While unequivocally evil, it is quite apparent the events also had a life-changing effect on Aram who might have become a lawyer or banker instead of taking on a more dangerous psychopathic trade had he not committed such heinous acts in his youth.  Meanwhile, Wouter finally succumbs to his wounds after looking like Christ during a dinner prayer and no longer after Aram’s boss Eugene (top Dutch character actor Cas Enklaar) and his fat muse Esther (Eva van der Gucht) show up at the house. As punishment for Wouter being fatally wounded during their robbery, Eugene has Esther urinate on the dead con’s grave as an example to Aram. After Esther literally pisses on Wouter’s grave, Eugene decides they should celebrate by having a barbecue which concludes in a game of hide-and-go-seek that Alex does not play because he has to attend to his sick mother who he has just learned is terminally ill with cancer.  When Aram was busy acting like an asshole, Alex took his mother to a doctor to get tested and when he got the test results back from the lab, the protagonist decided not to tell his progenitor as he wants her to die in peace.

While everyone else is playing a heated game of hide-and-go-seek that results in Esther getting stuck in a chimney after preposterously deciding to hide in one despite her rather impressive girth, Alex’s mother mistakes him for her dead hubby Theo and begins making out with him bed and the protagonist does virtually nothing to stop her. Needless to say, Aram and Sandra walk in on this disturbing display of motherly affection and the latter is so disturbed by it that she suffers a seizure due to the fact that she is epileptic. Aram volunteers to ‘revive’ her with CPR that ultimately evolves into a PDA between Sandra and the evil twin that is witnessed by Alex, who does nothing to stop it, thus demonstrating that he has no problem being cuckolded by his own brother. In fact, Alex wakes up the next morning in bed with Aram and Sandra, with the former embracing the latter’s unclad body in a somewhat sinister fashion. Disturbed by the fact that her boyfriend does not seem to care that his twin brother fucked her, Sandra confronts Alex, who finally admits that he cannot cope with anything as a result of past traumas. Although Sandra convinces Alex to leave his mother’s home ASAP, Aram coerces him to stay by stating, “We aren’t finished, Alex. You know it as well as I do.” Ultimately, Alex and Aram have a long-time coming climatic showdown of sorts where both twins reconcile with their shared tragic pasts and come to terms with their strikingly different but completely intertwined fates.  Needless to say, only one man can survive.  Somewhat strangely, Aram seems somewhat more sympathetic in the end.  Like with the tragedy from their teenage years, Aram is ultimately the one that makes the ultimate sacrifice in the end while Alex mostly stands back passively.

Judging by interviews I have watched with the director, Martin Koolhoven seems to be a somewhat arrogant and annoying bloated blabbermouth with a banal and considerably cliched film school fanboy view of cinema and I find it to be almost shocking that he is the same mind that was responsible for creating AmnesiA, as if the auteur was guided by an unknown force to create a minor masterpiece full of happy accidents that even he does not even fully comprehend.  Indeed, despite having a cleverly constructed story, the film is full of various ancient archetypes and symbolism that give it a sort of metaphysical potency that I doubt even the director was fully cognizant of when he directed the film, which is much more spiritually-oriented than his other works.  Not unlike the characters in AmnesiA who seem to walk through life like somnambulists being led by Dr. Caligari, I felt like I was able to understand the more important aspects of the work on a subconscious gut-level and I think that is one of the film's greatest strengths, with the murder mystery subplot being of secondary importance, at least in my less than humble opinion.  Notably, Koolhoven credits Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac (1966) and Harold Pinter’s play The Birthday Party (1957), which was once adapted by pre-The Exorcist William Friedkin in 1968, as the two main influences for his film as if it has no Dutch influences, which I certainly find to be somewhat dubious.  Aside from Ditvoorst’s White Madness, Koolhoven’s film also seems to be influenced by the pre-Hollywood work of George Sluizer (Spoorloos aka The Vanishing, Dark Blood) who, aside from Dick Maas, seems to be the least intrinsically ‘Dutch’ of the post-WWII filmmakers from the Netherlands. Interestingly, in a September 2013 interview with BelleOog, Koolhoven said that he plans to put a Dutch spin on spaghetti westerns for his upcoming work Brimstone and criticizes Quentin Tarantino for making plastic ‘homages’ to the Guido western subgenre instead of making genuine works with a more personalized influence, thus hinting that the Dutch filmmaker might not go the route of his countryman Paul Verhoeven by making schlocky big budget blockbusters that are more or less the cinematic equivalent of junk food.

In its provocative take on the timeless myths about identical twins and shadowy doppelgängers, AmnesiA is somewhat open to interpretation in the sense that one could easily argue that the film should not be taken literally and that the brothers are not two different individuals but two dichotomous extreme sides of the same person. Indeed, one could certainly argue that emotionally erratic Aram is actually Alex’s Jungian shadow—the unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not dare identify in itself lest the psyche crumbles—especially considering the protagonist spends a good portion of the film attempting to avoid his brother. When the protagonist does finally confront his brother in the end, he achieves what Jung described as ‘individuation’—a process of psychological transformation whereby the personal and collective unconscious merge and are brought into consciousness to be assimilated into the whole personality—hence why he is finally able to leave his past behind and move on with life. Unquestionably, whether intentional on Koolhoven’s part or not (personally, I don't think it really matters either way), AmnesiA certainly features one of the most effective portrayals of the shadow aspect and individuation in cinema history, as it is certainly more accessible and fluid than Fred Haines' consciously Jungian Hermann Hesse adaptation Steppenwolf (1974) starring Max von Sydow. Jungian psychobabble aside, Koolhoven’s film is a compulsively darkly comedic work that does the seemingly impossible by managing to juggle humor, angst, and melancholy in an addictively foreboding fashion that few other films can boast.  Ultimately, AmnesiA is like an unpretentious arthouse film that is carefully crafted in a way that even the most art-intolerant of filmgoers can understand it, though I think it's brilliance would be lost on the average American viewer, but of course that is not exactly a bad thing.

-Ty E

No comments: