Director: Nanouk Leopold
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I really want to be fair to Wolfsbergen. I saw it late last night after viewing the superb 1983 Charles Burnett feature My Brother’s Wedding (more on that in another review). I’ve been fighting a cold, and my throat was sore. The film started about 15 minutes late. It was Sunday night, and I had work the next day. These are circumstances that don’t lend themselves too well to slow, nearly wordless expositions on the meaning of life, which is sort of what Wolfsbergen seems to want to be. OK, so now you know my backstory, so to speak. I still don’t like this movie.
Wolfsbergen focuses on a dysfunctional upper-middle-class family with an unusual problem—the patriarch of the family, Konraad (Piet Kamerman), in the throes of grief over the death of his wife Lara, intends to commit suicide at the end of the summer. He announces his decision in letters sent to his immediate family: his middle-aged daughter Maria (Catherine ten Bruggencate) and her husband Ernst (Jan Decleir); granddaughter Sabine (Tamar van den Dop) who is married to Onno (Fedja van Huêt), has two daughters, Haas (Merel van Houts) and Zilver (Carmen Lith), and is having an affair with Micha (Oscar van Wounsel); and his other granddaughter Eva (Karina Smulders), whose letter he actually never posts.
Maria reads her letter on a plane she is taking to a European Union conference in a French-speaking country, maybe Belgium. She reacts to the news by going to a doctor and having her thighs liposuctioned and then refusing to let her husband see her body when she comes back home. Sabine won’t talk to Onno about it; she prefers to visit Micha. Eva cries a lot, just on general principle it seems, since she doesn’t know about her grandfather’s plan. Rejected by Sabine, Onno becomes close to Eva, who is extremely life-challenged and needs him. They fall in love. Sabine is furious, even though she’s been carrying on with Micha for years (he’s her ex-lover), because Onno takes up with her sister. Haas breaks things and eventually ends up chewing the lip off a water glass. Ernst goes to Konraad’s house and tends to him as he carries out his plan by refusing fluids. Eventually, the whole family shows up and says their good-byes.
This film has some very lyrical shots in it. I particularly loved the opening shot, a lingering look at a pine forest with birds chirping in its limbs. The interior shots are very revealing of the characters who inhabit them: the upscale homes of Maria and Ernst, of Konraad, of Onno and Sabine, for example, contrasted with the provisional bachelor pad of Micha and the barely livable loft of the ego-depleted Eva. We understand from these settings why, for example, Sabine married Onno—for material comforts she always knew with her dentist father and government official mother. When Onno asks her if their whole life—I assume including their two children—has been a lie, it’s hard not to think it has. But then Sabine doesn’t like to face unpleasant truths. None of Konraad’s blood relatives—including Konraad—like to do that.
But so what? I felt nothing for these over-privileged, self-indulgent ciphers. Their pain, while certainly worthy of consideration as human beings, was presented in such an arthouse cliché that I thought they should have all hired shrinks and stopped wasting my time. Why “serious” directors seem positively averse to giving audiences some dialogue and action to keep them engaged, why we are constantly challenged to look below the surface to characters who are internalizing everything is a mystery. The actors are supposed to be using The Method, not the audience.
I’m not a lazy viewer, nor do I need constant movement. One of my favorite films, A Brighter Summer Day, is four hours long and unspools its story in the natural rhythms of life—which sometimes has a little speed to it. If the intent is to numb the audience to match the emotional numbness of these repressed characters, then Leopold has succeeded admirably. A good-looking, artfully composed film, which anyone with some film school training can achieve these days, and lots of empty spaces “pregnant” with meaning are classic rookie conceits. This film is a pretentious bore.