CIFF 2010: The Happy Housewife (De gelukkige huisvrouw, 2010)

Director: Antoinette Beumer

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“I hate actors,” the cinephile said to me after a screening of a personal essay film that had no actors in it at all. I vaguely understood what he was saying, that actors are tricksters whose presence can take away from the sincerity of a film. As someone who treasures the films of Robert Bresson, the Neorealists, the Nouvelle Vague directors, as well as a slew of more contemporary films that use nonprofessionals, I find the unstudied spontaneity of the performances helps me appreciate the film as a whole rather than focusing on the accomplishments of a single performer.

And yet, condemning the acting profession seems like a act of self-hatred for a cinephile. Naturalism isn’t the only style of filmmaking that counts—indeed, high artifice has helped make the careers of such contemporary greats as Quentin Tarantino and Michel Gondry and defined genres such as film noir and science fiction. I’ve observed that when a project doesn’t quite come together, one often finds a triumph of the material over the performers or the performers over the material. In the case of the Dutch film The Happy Housewife, all I can say is that I’m very grateful that Carice van Houten was there to invigorate its sketchy script.

Van Houten, of course, was a revelation to all those who had the privilege of seeing her in Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 masterwork Black Book. She demonstrated that the ability to act is a skill we all need, and was a lifesaver for many Jews trying to evade the Nazi slaughter. Her ability to bring emotional depth to Verhoeven’s deliberate melodrama put meat on that genre’s flesh and elevated the entire film. Similarly, her work in The Happy Housewife is a tour de force that grounds a film that might come in for a drubbing because of its subject matter.

We meet Van Houten’s character, Lea, on an airplane. Harry Meyer (Valdemar Torenstra), a handsome architect we were introduced to at a construction site in the opening scene of the film has taken notice of Lea, a stewardess, on boarding the plane. He follows her with his eyes as she leaves his side in first class and bends over to attend to another passenger in coach, exposing her lovely legs and beautifully formed derriere. He asks her for another glass of champagne and follows her as she goes to fetch it. Just as the “fasten seatbelts” sign lights to signal turbulence, the pair goes into a toilet and makes love. Yes, that’s right—corny, corny, corny. Lea and Harry are married, naturally, and still extremely hot for each other after six years of marriage. Harry thinks the airplane toilet is the right place to suggest that he and Lea have a baby; he tempts her by promising to make love to her every day until she gets pregnant. And we get to see Van Houten’s magnificent breasts again in another sex scene, which Harry declares that he “can feel” is the one that made a baby as he lifts Lea by the legs to ensure his seed is firmly planted.

Lea was a bright and flirty woman before she got pregnant, and she remains one afterwards—going golfing with her friends and stealing a golf cart from an obnoxious coworker who constantly hits on her. When she’s about ready to give birth, she insists that she and Harry masturbate together because orgasm is supposed to bring on labor. And, again, another part of the plan of their life seems to work amazingly well.

Unfortunately, Lea’s labor is extremely difficult. The planned home birth with a midwife is 20 hours and counting before they decide it’s time to go to the hospital. The baby seems to have the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, and a gynecologist is brought in to assist. Despite her desperate protests, Lea gets two, large episiotomies to allow the doctor to unwrap the cord and prevent tearing. When her son is born, she is so traumatized, she can’t bear to look at him. Lea is headed for a major postpartum depression that will see her try to kill her son and end up being committed to a mental hospital for several months until she is deemed no longer a threat to herself and others. During her stay, she will learn that the hallucinations and bad dreams she had immediately following Junior’s birth are related to a father whose death by suicide she was never allowed to grieve.

The Happy Housewife is a product largely created by women. Based on a book by a woman, it was adapted for the screen by two women, and directed by a woman making her feature film debut. It seems highly likely that the harrowing birth scene was lent its veracity and intensity by the familiarity of these women with the horrors of birth. Sadly, however, director Beumer’s background is in television—specifically Dutch soap opera. Truthful moments, like Lea screaming at her “dyke” midwife in the delivery room are undercut by a silly conversation between Harry and the gynecologist about their respective golf handicaps. A birth that could be fatal to the baby—not to mention Lea’s real agony—should not have brought out this kind of offhand, comic moment in either the doctor or the father-to-be.

When the film turns dramatic, confrontation scenes Lea has with her mother (Joke Tjalsma), who demonized Lea’s father to her, and Harry, who wants her to be the same funny, beautiful wife she was before, seem shallow and forced. The mental hospital is filled with quirky types—the guy whom Lea mistakes for being a psychiatrist, the screamer who attacks anyone passing by because she wants a hug, the fat woman, the lonely guy who checks himself in and out of the hospital just to have some nonchallenging company, the young girl who writes on herself (humorously called “sketchpad”)—and Lea predictably comes to love them all. Beumer’s soap opera instinct to make everything bigger, both comically and tragically, is very unfortunate. She likes to scare us with red herrings like Lea carrying a pillow into her crying baby, making us think she is going to suffocate him, only to have her pick him up instead. And Lea’s cure comes about almost too easily by simply having a good cry over her father; unnecessarily, her mother has the tables turned on her by the script by being demonized as a wife who wanted her husband to kill himself long before he did.

What makes this film watchable is the incredible work of Van Houten. She is extremely smart in her witty humor at the beginning of the film and in her challenges to her doctor in the hospital (Marcel Hensema) and breaks down from a smiling, bubbly sexpot in a way that no one notices at first. Her complaints about being split open by the episiotomies, an obvious metaphor for the unleashing of her unresolved issues with her parents, mix the real and metaphorical subtly and effectively. Her confusion and distractedness, when she doesn’t have to interact with peers around her who don’t match her in skill, are frightening and disorienting for the audience. She is bathing her baby and absentmindedly lets go of him to try to remove something from her face in the mirror. This expression of her madness is a cliché of what crazy people do—like a later scene where she dresses like a tart to win her release from the hospital—but her commitment to it is complete, and the horror that the baby might drown is very real and well realized, even though the plastic baby we briefly glimpse floating face down in the water made for a cheap and completely unnecessary shot.

I thought Van Houten was well matched by Tjalsma, whose possessiveness of Junior after Lea is discharged expressed more than caution about Lea’s fitness to mother. Tjalsma has some very bad lines and scenes, but she really triumphs over them, not seeming the monster the script seemed to want to make her into. I liked Torenstra playing a doting father, but he just seemed all wrong as Lea’s husband, even during the happy opening of the film.

While the drama in the film leaves a lot to be desired, the comic dialogue is well written and well realized, and the pop 60s Coffee, Tea, or Me opening and bright music are well done. The quick happy ending of the film seems fit for a Lifetime TV movie. But because of Van Houten’s journey through one woman’s darkness, I actually felt happy and relieved.

The Happy Housewife will screen Tuesday, October 19, 3:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Southern District: The decline of the Bolivian upper class gets a very personal treatment in this close examination of one La Paz family and the natives who work for them. (Bolivia)

Asleep in the Sun: Ingenious period film that shows the transformation of a troubled woman into someone whose personality her husband doesn’t recognize after a stay in a mental health clinic. (Argentina)

Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)

On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)

Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)

The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)

Ten Winters: Emotionally honest and lyrical study of a man and a woman whose initial attraction goes through many changes as they experience 10 years worth of living. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    18th/10/2010 to 10:35 am

    “What makes this film watchable is the incredible work of Van Houten. She is extremely smart in her witty humor at the beginning of the film and in her challenges to her doctor in the hospital (Marcel Hensema) and breaks down from a smiling, bubbly sexpot in a way that no one notices at first.”

    I agree with your strong regard for Ms. Van Houten, and concur she delivered a powerhouuse persformance in BLACK BOOK. I’d admit I’m not a fan of that film, as I found it overblown, excessively lurid, emotionally distancing and narratively incoherent. But Marilyn, I do well remember the monmental blogothon on the film, and your magnificent participation. I was one of the only bloggers who wasn’t an advocate, yet I was still fascinated by the fecund validations by many I respect.

    In any case it does appear this latest report considers the weakest film you’ve yet seen in this festival, Van Houten’s stellar work notwithstanding. I love the opening discussion of the neo-realists and Bresson, and find myself agreeing in large measure.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    18th/10/2010 to 10:48 am

    Sam – I actually was not slated to see this film, but was shut out of a sold-out screening of the Polish film Erratum. Since I am a fan of Van Houten’s, it wasn’t a huge sacrifice to see this instead. The film has a great look and is professionally made, but Van Houten is the really the only reason to see it.

    As for Black Book, I think the weaknesses you mention are actually its strengths. Verhoeven is a master of melodrama, but it’s not everyone’s cuppa, I know. Still, I have a huge respect for well-rendered melodramas, and think Black Book is the pinnacle of the form.

  • MovieMan02832 spoke:
    19th/10/2010 to 10:35 am

    Marilyn, you’ve been tagged! With a specification too, though obviously it’s your to take or leave…

    Re: this piece, I found it a fascinating read – what’s interesting is where a film totters between lame soap opera and “well-rendered melodrama” as you put it. Where is that line? For many people, and for a long time, it seems, Douglas Sirk’s films were regarded as little more than soap operas – even though they are so fully what they are (you can’t imagine them in another form) that they command respect. With this film, do you think a melodramatic approach could have worked at all, or that it would have always been too much at odds with elements of the screenplay? It sounds like what’s weak about this Happy Housewife is not so much the overwrought emotions many associate with soap operas, but the reliance on cliched shortcuts which a good melodrama will transcend.

  • MovieMan02832 spoke:
    19th/10/2010 to 10:36 am

    Oops, forgot to include the link:

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/10/2010 to 11:29 am

    MM – It’s a little hard to know how this film could have been fixed. It goes from bubble-gum light to heart of darkness, and the change in mood and tone was a bit jarring, though handled much better than it could have been. I think the weaknesses were in the script itself. It created cliche charcters, which is something melodrama really doesn’t do. Melodrama has a distancing effect that turns a particular situation into something universal or blank enough for people to impress with their own feelings and thoughts. The film does the thinking for us by creating a monster mom, stock crazies, and a superficial husband. Then it amps our emotions with scare tactics. A good melodrama lets the situation create the impression, not force the situation to emote. I really think a better script with more believable characters is what was called for. Also, the pat ending was not earned and needed to show Lea as a work in progress.

  • MovieMan02832 spoke:
    19th/10/2010 to 9:09 pm

    Yeah, that’s what I suspected. Sounds like a poor film with a few surprisingly good elements, rather than vice-versa (in other words, the weak spots sound like the damning rule rather than the damaging exceptions). It’s certainly an interesting topic – particularly with all the headlines (some of them too horrifying for me to even think about) that have been made in the past decade. Offhand, though I haven’t followed the contemporary film scene, no other movies with this subject come to mind – are there any you know of?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/10/2010 to 8:22 am

    I can’t think of any either, though the Dardennes’ L’Enfant deals with another harrowing situation – selling a baby. However, it is the father, not the mother, who is the danger in that one. I really think postpartum depression is not something the average producer considers a worthy topic for discussion. Even this film, transfers it to grief over a dead father, not the horror it is in itself. Perhaps there are some TV movies that deal with it – it is the sort of subject you’re more likely to find on TV.

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    20th/10/2010 to 7:22 pm

    “Even this film, transfers it to grief over a dead father, not the horror it is in itself.” This is a good point, with implications beyond just this movie – too often I find, writers try to make a feeling or condition – be it depression, insanity, spirituality, etc. tied to an easily explainable pop-Freudian tidbit. I don’t want to condemn this approach altogether, sometimes it can be rewarding or illuminating (I’m trying hard to think of when, but I know I saw an example of this recently somewhere!). But usually it’s just lazy and kind of trivializes the situation, I find. Feelings or states in and of themselves are too often skirted in movies and made to be “about” something else in too-literal fashion.

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