Thursday, May 1, 2008

Review of Character

Dreverhaven is dead, stabbed in the stomach on the same evening that his young nemesis, Jacob Katadreuffe, was seen leaving his building covered in blood. As the opening credits play, we see Jacob confront the soft-spoken, oft-reviled bailiff, burying a knife (the murder weapon) in his desk and claiming victory for earning a law diploma despite Dreverhaven’s evilest efforts. Dreverhaven congratulates him. Jacob storms out. A minute later he returns, charges forward and leaps across his desk. The audience won’t find out what happened next until the suspect has confessed his entire life story. He tells how his single-minded quest for upward mobility in the face of the bailiff’s machinations was fueled all the more by a need to prove himself to his illegitimate father, the very same Mr. Dreverhaven.

“Character” (1997) is a Dutch film set in the 1920’s against a backdrop of class warfare, civil unrest and communist stirrings. The title does not refer to a person-character, but to the way we use the word in the phrase “it builds character,” thematically relevant to the movie. Though the opening sets the film up like a mystery, the story, written by Ferdinand Bordewijk, is more of a character study. The audience is propelled through Jacob Katadreuffe’s ignoble birth (His mother conceived him while working as Dreverhaven’s maid, but quits soon after and refuses to marry him.), impoverished youth, ill-advised entrepreneurship (Dreverhaven owns the bank that lends Jacob capital for a doomed cigar show and he comes to collect on the inevitable bankruptcy), auspicious clerical career, still-born love life, costly education and hollow triumph.

Director Mike van Diem knows how to tell a story. He’s got a Hawksian efficiency that fits with Jacob’s no-nonsense work ethic. Shots are cropped to fit snuggly around the action, often starting and stopping in the midst of movement to create an impression of urgency and forward momentum. Yet Diem refuses to sacrifice clarity, never really rushing or resorting to shaky-cam techniques and violations of the 180 degree rule. He never cuts without a reason, but Diem can think of more reasons to cut than most. There’s a series of shots when Jacob’s mother rejects Dreverhaven’s mailed marriage proposal for the last time. Reading her response while in court, he slams his fist on a banister. The shots are described below:

1) Dreverhaven, standing on an interior balcony as he opens the letter.
2) We see a close-up of the letter reading “Will Always Be Refused.”
3) We see the court proceeding on the main floor below. The focus pulls in as Dreverhaven slams his fist in the extreme foreground, his hand completely filling the screen.
4) Reaction shot of the judge.
5) Long shot of the entire room. The soundtrack goes dead as everyone turns to look at him. They are surprised not just by the noise, but by the vehemence of the usually stony man.
6) Back to Dreverhaven. The fact that he hasn’t even noticed the sudden silence or the collective gaze makes it clear how important the marriage/fatherhood issue really is to him.
7) Jacob’s mother in her modest flat across town. The brief shot shows her looking up from her kitchen countertop as she writes the letter.
8) Dreverhaven again.

Notice that we do not get a close-up of Dreverhaven’s face (in the medium shots #1, 6 and 8, he is staring downward and his expression is not very clear), which would have been conventional, but hardly necessary for the audience to understand the scene. The transition from #4 to 5 is slightly redundant, being simply a reframe that takes in the entire room, but otherwise each shot accomplishes something different plot-wise and visually. Even the 1-6-8 shots are repeated with purpose: to show his lack of reaction relative to the single violent outburst in #3 and to anchor the insert shots of the letter, judge, room and mother.

It’s shot #7 that would get a little exclamation mark in chess notation. It's an example of Diem’s coy playfulness with flashbacks. (At another time Jacob confession contains omniscient knowledge of his father’s dreams and later on a character will narrate from within the event he is describing.) #7’s purpose might be to explicitly show what is passing through Dreverhaven’s mind or to simulate a silent conversational cross-cutting between the two characters despite the gap in space and time. However, by placing it directly after the insert shot sequence of #1-6, the audience is primed to see it as a reaction shot similar to the court attendees’ (i.e. Jacob’s mother looks up from writing because she hears the pounding of his fist). The impossible suggestion that she can hear from miles away and hours earlier hyperbolizes Dreverhaven’s anger, confirms that he is a danger and foreshadows how far-reaching his power will extend.

Even taking into account the oddness of shot #7 and the lack of a close-up, the sequence is not even remotely confusing. This directness makes for solid conventional story-telling that, along with the sharp-focus cinematography and unflinching framing, accomplishes Hollywood accessibility while squeezing in a unique style. Diem’s camera movement, in particular, is far from rote. His patient zooms, pans and dolly shots, whipped forward by the impatient editing, creates a sweeping, grandiose mood a la “The Godfather” (not quite as polished or innovative, sadly) without lingering long enough to fully shift our focus from the action to the artistry.

Probably the biggest flaw is Fedja van Huet’s uninspired performance as Jacob. He’s not bad, but his lack of range deprives the character of the complexity and inner turmoil it needs. Jan Decleir has an easier time with Dreverhaven, perhaps because he can rely on silence and his lurching hulk of a physique to communicate the raw presence required. Diem doesn’t rely too heavily on his cast’s delivery; his efficiency encompasses a leanness of dialog that rarely puts a word where a glare will do. A few mediocre monologues hint at another reason for reticence, but overall the screenplay has plenty to be proud of: moody to-the-point narration, some revealing offhand lines and a fistful of blunt-impact bloody-nose retorts.

The silences are, however, the most powerful, and it’s not just a matter of keeping the performances in check or giving free reign to the action. Diem tackles silence, repression and Nordic stoicism as some of his most prominent themes, showing how it leaves the characters isolated, self-centered and riddled with psychosis. Jacob pens up his bitterness about lacking parental love and channels his vengeful temper into an insatiable ambition, occasionally revealing how dissatisfied he is with the surrogate during shrill outbursts. His mother is a pragmatist whose inner mind is never really on display. Jacob claims they are opposites, and while she is cold-blooded to his hot, he is blind to the way they both suffer from an inability to make healthy emotional connections.

Dreverhaven is, like all great father-figure/rivals, an overgrown manifestation of the dark potential in Jacob’s soul. The bailiff’s merciless obedience to the letter of the law includes dragging the bed of a dying rent-remiss tenant into the street and upturning her and pinning an eviction notice to a door amidst the gunfire of a communist uprising. He fantasizes about being stoned by a mob, carries a knife upon which he fixates and is consumed with a desperate death wish. How he really feels about Jacob is rather unclear. The trial-by-fire that Dreverhaven inflicts upon his progeny only spreads the same bitterness that has already eaten his soul, and if he is aware of the hereditary misery that he can’t resist culturing, then it only deepens his spiral of self-loathing.

I’d much rather think (as I do) that Bordewijk and Diem are consciously addressing the Nordic stereotypes of dispassionate austerity and tight-lipped stoicism, rather than unwittingly exhibiting them. They do certainly dispel the vague notion that there is some sort of honorable nobility in completely suppressing emotions. They leave a bit up to the audience to dwell on and leave plenty of room for viewers to draw parallels between real and fictional authoritarian figures, but otherwise the material is easily accessible.

Walrus Rating: 8.0

No comments: