Feb 1, 2015


Female mental illness and hysteria is a subject that is very rarely treated in cinema in a fashion that transcends unintentionally goofy caricatures and banal clichés as epitomized in overrated Hollywood films like Girl, Interrupted (1999) where a real-life bat-shit crazy broad like Angelina Jolie portrays a fictional bat-shit crazy broad in an exceedingly phony fashion. Of course, there are certain European arthouse filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Rainer Werner Fassbinder who had a talent for depicting the more mentally deteriorated members of the fairer sex, but they, not unlike American auteur John Cassavetes with A Woman Under the Influence (1974), took a highly theatrical and largely literal approach to the subject.  It seems that only a couple exceedingly effete gay male filmmakers like Werner Schroeter have even dared to depict ladylike lunacy in a more visceral, abstract, and esoteric fashion as reflected in the German director's works like Day of the Idiots (1981) and Malina (1991), which no heterosexual man could have ever directed.  Probably due do to the fact that there are not many female filmmakers, especially genuinely talented ones, there are also hardly any worthwhile films about demented dames directed by dames aside from a couple notable exceptions like Helma Sanders-Brahms’ No Mercy, No Future (1981) aka Die Berührte, a couple works by Valie Export (Unsichtbare Gegner aka Invisible Adversaries, Die Praxis der Liebe aka The Practice of Love), and Marina de Van’s Dans ma peau (2002) aka In My Skin. Of course, considering most female filmmakers seem to tend to be feminists (including most of the ones I mentioned above), a lot of their works tend to blame men for female mental instability as reflected in the works of Margarethe von Trotta, Helke Sander, Chantal Akerman, Mary Harron, and various others. If there seems to be any female auteur that has cinematically tackled feminine mental illness in a fairly original and hopelessly honest fashion that is devoid of any sort of glaring socio-political bias, be it feminist or otherwise, it is Dutch auteur Maartje Seyferth who, with her real-life partner Victor Nieuwenhuijs, has directed five features over the course of the past two decades or so that oftentimes tap into the darker side of femininity. With their debut feature Venus in Furs (1994)—an adaptation of Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s classic 1870 S&M/BDSM themed novella of the same name—Nieuwenhuijs and Seyferth depicted feminine erotic cruelty and the masochistic men that enjoy receiving it, but it was not until their similarly stylized black-and-white feature Crepuscule (2009) aka Twilight that the couple dared to change gears and dive into the deep, dark, arcane, labyrinthine, and seemingly bottomless abyss of a distressed debutante’s perturbed psyche. Aside from Nieuwenhuijs co-penning Venus in Furs and Lulu (2005), Seyferth has been the sole writer of the couple’s scripts and in none of their works does this seem more apparent than in their carefully cultivated b/w ‘crazy chick flick.’ While Seyferth is undoubtedly the true ‘auteur’ (aka author) of the film in terms of its themes and decidedly dispiriting spirit, Crepuscule, like all of the couple’s works, was shot by Nieuwenhuijs and thus the aesthetic essence and mise-en-scène is more or less his. Notably, Nieuwenhuijs once studied under Dutch avant-garde master auteur Frans Zwartjes (Living, Pentimento) at the Free Academy at The Hague and the teacher’s influence on his student is readily apparent in the film which, like virtually the entire oeuvre of his mentor, is completely free of dialogue and more or less the modern equivalent of a silent film as a work that makes full use of what cinema does best by communicating what cannot be expressed through mere words or photos, but only through the moving image. A sort of female neo-noir Dutch take on Marco Ferreri's Dillinger è morto (1969) aka Dillinger Is Dead as a work where a hopelessly bored and equally mentally unstable protagonist goes through a sort of bizarre mental transformation after randomly discovering a revolver, Crepuscule undoubtedly features the sort of brazenly ambitious and uncompromising artistic integrity that has rarely been seen in European cinema since the early-1970s, hence why the filmmakers are hardly household names in the homeland of the Netherlands.

 A 70-minute one-woman show starring cutesy blonde babe Nellie Benner—an actress that would go on to play a no less demanding role in Nieuwenhuijs and Seyferth’s later darkly comedic absurdist work Vlees (2010) aka Meat—in what would be her very first acting role before she went on to star in a series of Dutch TV shows, Crepuscule is a malignantly moody and somehow simultaneously melancholic yet erotic meditation on the slow-burning disintegration of one cracked chick’s fragile mind. In the handful of reviews I could find about the film, the work is described as a literal take on the popular cinephile quote attributed to Jean-Luc Godard, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun” (actually, Godard borrowed this quote from D.W. Griffith) but of course that would like be describing Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) as a film about an old dying man and a sled or Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966) as a drama about a girl and a donkey. While the nameless waif in the film never speaks, she is what one might describe as an ‘unreliable narrator’ and ‘non compos mentis’ as a couple things happen in the film that make absolutely no logical sense. Aside from never learning the protagonist’s actual name, one also never learns literally nothing about her background or why she abruptly decides to move to Amsterdam at the very beginning of the film.  Indeed, as far as the viewer can tell, the protagonist could be a spoiled rich girl from Sweden who ran away from home, or a failed American academic who just got out of drug rehab, though it seems more likely that she is a victim of sexual violence that needed to get away from a scary place that reminded her of an unfortunate past life.  Despite the lack of background information in regard to the young heroine's life, the viewer will get closer to her in a way that reminded me of great Viennese Jewish philosopher Otto Weininger's words: “No men who really think deeply about women retain a high opinion of them; men either despise women or they have never thought seriously about them.”  Insensitive remarks about womanhood aside, Crepuscule is certainly a work that forces male viewers to confront aspects of femininity that they would probably be better off not knowing.  While it is true that the film's protagonist does not act as a representative of all of womankind, her mental derangement is discernibly and incontestably female.

 If there is one thing that one immediately notices about the nameless protagonist of Crepuscule, it is that she is a deleteriously introverted young lady who mostly lives inside her somewhat unhinged head and only feels comfortable when she is in her apartment by herself as demonstrated by the fact that she is almost always completely stark-naked whilst all by her lonesome. Indeed, the cutesy girl strategically dresses like a sloppy tomboy in public and constantly tugs at the hood of her hoodie in vain to cover as much of her face and hair as possible, as if to disguise the fact that she is a beauteous blonde babe that most men in the world would happily defile.  Of course, as the film reveals as it progresses and the protagonist's mind further deteriorates, she is indeed hopelessly afraid of men to the point of hysteria, as if she was the victim of a brutal gang-rape or some similarly brutal sex crime.  After moving to a small dimly lit one-room studio apartment in Amsterdam that is furnished with a large dirty mirror, large rug, and electric organ, the leading lady takes a rather unladylike dead-end job at a gas station where she pumps peoples’ gas and washes their cars while looking discernibly miserable. Stereotypically Dutch in her pathological frugalness, the girl digs through trash to find new furniture for her apartment and creates coat-racks by merely nailing hammers into the wall.  Later in the film, the protagonist also nails wooden boards over her windows to make sure that no one can get in from the outside and potentially sexually ravage her.  When the protagonist meets a less than charming and rather rotund middle-aged man (played Titus Muizelaar, who also starred in Nieuwenhuijs and Seyferth’s Lulu and Meat) while washing his minivan at work, she becomes rather unnerved by his seemingly harmless presence and based on no evidence whatsoever, assumes he is a sinister stalker and soon develops a progressive pathological obsession with believing that she is being routinely stalked by the portly fellow. That night while sleeping, a random hand mysteriously place a revolver on the heroine’s pillow and while in a somnambulistic state, she picks up the weapon and masturbates with it in a superlatively sensual fashion as if it is a vibrator. After playing with the revolver in a thoroughly intrigued and equally aroused fashion as if she is a horny teenage virgin who got to fiddle with a throbbing cock for the first time in her entire life, the protagonist points the weapon at the viewer in what is easily one of the most erotically enticing gun scenes in all of cinema history. With the gun, the heroine obtains a pseudo-phallic of sorts that will empower her enough to where she can conjure up a darker yet more confidant and intimidating alter-ego, as if she has suffered a schizophrenic split in her mind that was created so her superlatively sensitive psyche would not altogether crumble as a result of the recent overwhelming stress, paranoia, and melancholy she has suffered as a petrified girl in a cold, dark, and merciless neo-noir world. 

 After receiving the gun, the heroine begins developing a new nocturnal persona which she compliments by buying a dark wig and a pair of high-heels that give her a more amorous yet predatorial appearance that screams “fuck me but don't fuck with me.” While looking confidant and even domineering for the first time in the film, the protagonist stands in front of her mirror while wearing nothing but her wig and high-heels and while fondling her revolver in a rather risqué fashion that makes it quite clear that she has an eroticized view of violence. With her new ‘femme fatale’ alter-ego, the heroine decides to have a drink at a local outdoor café where she even shouts “Pow! Pow!” (notably, the single two ‘words’ of dialogue in the entire film) while pointing her finger in the air and pretending to shoot an imaginary gun, as if she has finally gained enough confidence to confront society but is incapable of actually properly expressing said confidence.  Of course, this film-inspired brand of contrived confidence is fairly short lived. After senselessly smashing a glass of champagne at the café as if to exercise her newfound self-esteem and to temporarily break the tedium of her strikingly dull life, the heroine heads to a local bar but leaves abruptly as soon as she sees the fat man that she absurdly believes is her stalker. While taking a bus ride home, the protagonist once again sees her imagined stalker, so when she gets back to apartment and someone knocks on her door, she decides to answer the door with a revolver, but no one is there. 

 As symbolically depicted in a Fassbinder-esque shot where the protagonist gives off the appearance of having two head because her face is next to a mirror, the lonely little lady seems to be suffering from a split-personality. With her femme fatale alter-ego being an abject failure, the protagonist decides to take things one step further by dressing in drag and sporting a drawn-on Adolf Hitler/Charlie Chaplin mustache and then once again proceeds to brave Amsterdam during the late night, but this midnight excursion ultimately has psychologically tragic consequences and throws the female lead further into a penetrating psychodramatic nightmare where paranoid obsession gets the best of the socially alienated blonde beauty. Indeed, while walking down the road dressed like a man, the heroine is grabbed by her supposed stalker and pulled down a stairway, though the viewer hears no screams or sounds that might indicate she is being physically and/or sexually savaged. When the heroine finally emerges from the stairway after half a minute or so, she begins running back to her apartment and on the way she becomes so startled upon seeing a cyclist that she takes cover behind a tree and impotently fires a couple of shots from her revolver into a nearby bush. When the mentally perturbed protagonist finally gets back to her apartment, she pathetically beats her bed with a pole and begins waving her gun in the air as if to defend herself against an army of imaginary adversaries. In the end, the heroine takes a midnight stroll to a local pier and puts her revolver-cum-dildo in one of her fleshy orifices, though one never knows if she ever got the gall to pull the trigger. 

 In the various negative reviews that I have read on Crepuscule, it is claimed that the film is nothing more than a sort of sophomoric film school rip-off of the early works of Godard, but aside from the black-and-white cinematography and the whole “a girl and a gun” deal, the comparisons simply end there. Indeed, if anything, the film is anti-Godardian to the core as a work that, aside from being refreshingly apolitical, portrays the fairer sex at its most hopelessly scared, weak, vulnerable, unstable, erratic, waywardly whimsical, and emotionally destroyed whereas the work of the famed frog commie filmmaker portrays women as oftentimes strong, hypnotic, and deleteriously alluring femme fatales and seductresses who merely need to flaunt their bodies to mentally enslave an alpha-male type. While the female lead of Nieuwenhuijs and Seyferth’s work may flaunt her bare derriere in a fashion not unlike Brigitte Bardot at the beginning of Contempt (1963) aka Le Mépris, she does it for the complete opposite reason as she feels most safe and secure while unclad all by herself and immersed in her own hermetic inward world and she certainly does not do it to beguile a man like the character played by the busty blonde French babe. Instead of using her body as an empowering tool like in Contempt where Bardot’s character strokes her own ego by asking her hubby things that she already knows the answer to like “Do you like my ass? Do you like my breasts?,” the cracked chick of Crepuscule feels completely scared and vulnerable because of her wholly and delectably body and the way it makes men salivate, hence her strange proclivity towards wearing over-sized hoodies and bulky jackets in public. Of course, as a film, Crepuscule, much like the films of co-director Nieuwenhuijs’ mentor Frans Zwartjes, is not a highly self-conscious work that was made with the intention of appealing to trendy pedantic left-wing intellectuals like Godard’s films, but instead it is a visceral and uncompromising artistic expression that hits you at the gut-level and never resorts to banal outmoded political ideologies or barely veiled subtextual sermonizing.  Like Zwartjes' work, the film is also not the sort of thing you would screen in a feminist film class, as it is far too enigmatic and ambiguous for it not to cause certain misguided misandrist types to suffer from cognitive dissonance as a result of its intricate and esoteric depiction of a haunted female psyche.  Of course, the film's strikingly flattering depiction of the unclad female form might also incite rage in certain ugly and resentful hags.  A work that takes its title from an old fashioned 14th century word for “twilight,” Nieuwenhuijs and Seyferth’s celluloid psychodrama ultimately depicts modern Occidental femininity at its most literally and figuratively stripped and bare in what can be seen as a sort of Götterdämmerung of the European female collective unconscious as personified by one particularly damaged dame who is scared of the ‘light’ and ultimately succumbs to the ‘dark’ (or what Jung described as the “shadow aspect”), only to fall further into an all-consuming abyss of self-obliterating whimsical hysteria, paranoia, dejection, and confusion. 

-Ty E

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