Feb 26, 2015
If the Netherlands has anything representing a sort of Dutch equivalent to J.D. Salinger’s obnoxiously overrated novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), it is probably De avonden (1947) aka The Evenings by Gerard Reve, which is so popular in its native land that it was ranked first among works created since 1900 in the Dutch homeland in a 2002 poll conducted by members of the Society for Dutch Literature. Written by a subversive sodomite of the almost pathologically anti-communist sort who was brought in to the atheistic Marxist faith by his parents but later converted to Roman Catholicism and who claimed to use homosexuality as merely a motif for his work which ultimately dealt with the theme of the inferiority of human love in comparison to ‘divine love,’ The Evenings is certainly a more intricate, mature, and multilayered work in comparison to Salinger’s oftentimes intolerably whiny proto-hipster novel. In fact, the novel was deemed so bizarre due to its largely plotless and sometimes dreamlike structure that it was believed that it could never be adapted into a film, yet Dutch auteur Rudolf van den Berg (De Johnsons aka The Johnsons, Süskind) had the gall to take up the challenge, or as he later reflected regarding his decision to adapt the novel: “EVENINGS (DE AVONDEN) is the best known Dutch literary novel of all time, so turning it into a film was a great challenge. Everybody agreed it couldn't be done, so I ignored all advice, and told the story backwards compared to the book. I remember feeling that through each and every shot the story began to reveal to me something about myself until eventually, when the film was finished, I finally understood what the film was about.” While van den Berg’s 1989 film adaption of the same name was criticized by certain film critics because they felt it was not a faithful adaptation, the film became somewhat of a cult hit in the Netherlands and managed to earn no less than two Golden Calfs (the Dutch equivalent to the Oscars), including ‘best film’ and ‘best actor,’ thus demonstrating its importance in the context of Dutch cinema history.
The darkly comedic story of a hyper-neurotic 23-year-old college dropout turned office worker who is terrified of confronting the year 1948 as he is of embracing his latent homosexuality, Evenings is, not unlike the films of German auteur Volker Schlöndorff, a slightly dumbed down and stripped take on its source material that ultimately attempts to capture the spirit of Reve's work while paying biographical tribute to the writer himself (as reflected in the film's gay angle), but of course the director also hoped to add his own angle as reflected in an almost ghostly Jewish presence throughout the flick (while the film features no Jewish characters, a closed Jewish shop is featured throughout, as if to subtly symbolize the eradication of the fairly ancient and once thriving Dutch Jewish community during the Second World War). Indeed, not surprisingly considering van den Berg’s Judaic background, the film takes a Freudian-cum-Kafkaesque approach to Reve’s work as it wallows in strikingly surreal and oftentimes dark symbolic psycho-sexual imagery, especially of the Oedipal sort, including big breasts dripping with milk, and certainly does not really emphasize the Roman Catholic subtext like Paul Verhoeven’s somewhat superior Gerard Reve adaptation De vierde man (1983) aka The Fourth Man, which also stars Thom Hoffman. Unquestionably, van den Berg’s film owes a great deal of its peculiar potency to lead Hoffman who, as a man who starred in such great and eclectic films as Theo van Gogh’s daringly iconoclastic debut feature Luger (1982), Adriaan Ditvoorst’s Dutch magical realist magnum opus De Witte Waan (1984) aka White Madness, and Aryan Kaganof’s darkly humorously pornographic cinematic poem Shabondama Elegy (1999) aka Tokyo Elegy, is arguably the greatest and certainly the most daring Dutch actor of his generation. Simultaneously depicting the literally and figuratively nightmarish neuroticism of a young crypto-cocksucker suffering from an acute case of oikophobia who must come to terms with his desire to suck cock despite living with horrifically humdrum parents with whom he takes great pains to relate, as well as portraying post-WWII Holland from the perspective of a Jew who seems to have mixed feelings regarding the Dutch role in the war, Evenings is ultimately a work that straddles an aesthetically schizophrenic line between the forlorn and farcical as well as the hyperrealist and absurd, thus making for an undeniably unforgettable, if not somewhat uneven, coming-of-age work that makes it seem like the Dutch psyche was a hidden casualty of the Second World War.
23-year-old college dropout turned office worker Frits van Etgers (Thom Hoffman) is going to have one hell of a struggle trying to deal with Christmas and the days after that leading up to New Year’s Eve of 1947, which he seems to believe will conclude with some sort of apocalypse that seems to be more metaphysical than literal. Frits lives by the personal mantra, “Things are bad. Otherwise I'm fine,” and he seems completely incapable of relating to anyone, especially his hopelessly banal and old-fashioned communist parents, who have no idea what to do with their seemingly perennially problematic prodigal son. With his father (Rijk de Gooyer) being a half-deaf hard ass who asks his son rather rude things like, “Don’t you ever doubt your sanity?” and his mother (Viviane de Muynck) being an easily upset worrywart who likes calling her son ‘mouse,’ Frits is on the verge of insanity as a result of living with his parents and incessantly fantasizes about them dying in grisly ways. At the very beginning of the film, Frits suffers from a tormenting nightmare set 11 minutes before the New Year where he spots a fellow closeted homosexual named Wim (Jobst Schnibbe) outside from his upstairs window and subsequently runs to his parents to tell them something that he just cannot find the words to say. Of course, what Frits cannot tell his parents is that he has the unshakeable urge to smoke some pole and to pound some twinks.
Partly because he has an immaculate head of red hair that he prides himself on, but mainly because he is hopelessly neurotic and suffers from a variety of pathologies, Frits is obsessed with balding and wastes no time telling people, including his much hated family man brother Joop (Kees Hulst), that they are suffering from a receding hairline. When Frits attends a Christmas event at his high school, he informs a former teacher while urinating next to him, “Mr. Wening, some bald people are quite happy,” in what can be described as the protagonist’s warped attempt at complimenting another person. At the same event, Frits imagines himself one day becoming as famous as Dante, Shakespeare, and Einstein, among others. While Frits is certainly a preternaturally intelligent guy with somewhat cultivated taste, he is also a hopeless slacker who has yet to attempt to fulfill his dream of being a famous writer by actually writing something. Instead, Frits likes unloading his curious and oftentimes appalling criticisms, fantasies, and desires on his oddball friends and apathetic family members. For example, Frits tells his four-eyed comrade Viktor (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) that, regarding his father, “My only hope is that he hangs himself.” Indeed, an intolerably anally retentive chap, Frits cannot stomach the fact that his half-dead papa constantly farts, mashes his food, and uses a sugar spoon for a porridge pot. Sexually speaking, Frits is all screwed up as demonstrated by the fact that he puts his penis between his thighs to make it seem as if he is a girl with a bushy beaver and then proceeds to examine his rectum with a mirror while repeatedly asking himself, “What am I? A cone or a funnel?” as if to question whether he is a man or a woman. While carefully inspecting his anus, Frits states to himself in a rather intrigued fashion regarding his toxic-waste-dispensing nether-region, “Disgusting. If you saw a photo of it…you’d never believe it was human.” As demonstrated by the fact that he abruptly blows off his virtual doppelganger Wim—a fellow closet case that has the same exact haircut and some of the same neurotic tendencies as the protagonist—after the young man gets a little too ‘personal’ with him, Frits is deathly afraid of his hidden sexuality.
One night, Frits decides to pay a visit to his quirky offbeat female photographer friend Bep (Elja Pelgrom) and on a whim he decides to bury his head into the little lady’s crotch and then proceeds to pull up her dress. While Bep initially becomes angry and pushes his hand off of her, she subsequently puts Frits’ hand on her naughty bits, which startles the protagonist and causes him to immediately abort the rather awkward sexual encounter. Possibly because she thinks he is a gynophobic nancy boy and thus feels sorry for him, Bep gives Frits a stuffed rabbit to borrow, which becomes a sort of symbol of his repressed sexuality and which he punishes by anally pillaging it with a stick. If there is anyone else like Frits in his town, it is his demented one-eyed friend Maurits Duivenis (Pierre Bokma), who fantasizes about strangling little boys in the woods and also shows signs of being a repressed rectum-reamer, albeit of the more sadomasochistic sort. Despite the fact that Frits states to Maurits, “I’m polite but that is partly fear. With you, I’m never sure I won’t get stabbed in a dark alley,” the two certainly have a special connection due to being sexually perverted social outcasts. Needless to say, Frits suffers from a histrionic freakout and flees when Maurits attempts to grab his cock while describing in a fetishistic manner how he would torture a young boy. Unquestionably, Frits receives a sort of epiphany regarding his life when he discovers that his beloved closest crush Wim has committed suicide and although he never says it outright, the protagonist knows that he must embrace his homosexuality if he ever wants to live anything resembling a tolerable life. While Frits becomes obsessed with the idea of coming out to his parents on New Year’s Eve night, he ultimately wusses out, runs outside into the street, and suffers a hellish allegorical hallucination where he sees a group of menacing demonic figures in masks standing among otherworldly flames that the protagonist’s dead friend Wim soon walks by. In the end, Frits finds it in himself to find forgiveness for his unsympathetic parents and declares to himself before going to bed regarding surviving the New Year, “It's all over, gone. But I’m alive. I breathe, therefore I’m alive. Whatever ordeals…pain, disasters…I’m alive.” After falling asleep, Frits dreams about his smiling parents collectively telling him, “Frits, it has been seen. Yes, son. It has not gone unnoticed,” as if they are letting him know that they realize he is gay and accept it. In a metacinematic scene in tribute to source writer Gerard Reve, who seemed to use writing as a source of solace and therapeutic outlet for his neurotic tendencies like so many writers, the film concludes with Frits beginning to write for the first time in the film in a heavy-handedly triumphant scene complimented by uplifting transcendental music.
While I would have surely appreciated it if director Rudolf van den Berg had chosen to emphasize Gerard Reve’s innate anticommunist and Roman Catholic tendencies in his adaptation of Evenings, the film certainly exceeded any expectations I had for the work, though I think that is largely owed to Thom Hoffman’s singular performance in what was surely an intricate and undeniably unflattering role. Aside from van den Berg’s predictable Freudian approach to the source novel, the film has an all-too-polished Hollywood-like aesthetic that can be somewhat distracting and even annoying, especially considering the overall subversive essence of the novel, which would have certainly been better adapted by an indigenous Dutchman like Adriaan Ditvoorst who demonstrated a proficiency for adapting the works of Willem Frederik Hermans (who, with Reve and Hebrew Harry Mulisch, is considered one of the ‘Great Three’ of post-WWII Dutch literature). Indeed, like the works of fellow Dutch Judaic George Sluizer (Spoorloos aka The Vanishing, Dark Blood), van den Berg’s film has a certain deracinated ‘cosmopolitan’ feel about it that, for better or worse, betrays the decided Dutchness of its source material, thus probably making it more accessible for foreign viewers. Undoubtedly, Evenings is worth seeing just for Hoffman’s performance alone as a cracked crypto-homo trichophile that ultimately makes Holden Caulfield seem like an insufferable failed bourgeois man-child who needs to shut-up and just get laid. Of course, antihero Frits of van den Berg’s film also needs to get laid, but being a confused cocksucker in pre-sexual liberation Calvinist Holland ultimately makes for a more interesting scenario than a rich American wuss who is too afraid to lose his virginity, even after paying a pussy-peddler for her valuable time. Judging by van den Berg’s subsequent work De Johnsons (1992) aka The Johnsons—a strange and somewhat original yet mostly mediocre horror flick starring Dutch diva Monique van de Ven of Turkish Delight (1973) fame that is notable for apparently being the last Dutch horror film of the twentieth century, but not much else—Evenings certainly seems to owe most of its potency to Reve’s novel as channeled through the wayward spirit of Herr Hoffman. Of course, the film is just as much a (anti)tribute to and psycho-biography of Gerard Reve as it is an adaptation of the writer's novel, which is ultimately what makes it quite intriguing and fairly original for a work of its kind.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 12:41 AM
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