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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

All's Quiet on the Rural Front

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It’s All So Quiet
Director: Nanouk Leopold
Writers: Gerbrand Bakker (novel), and Nanouk Leopold (adaptation)
Netherlands, 2013. 

In this spare and understated exploration of the often fraught family relationships of the LGBT community, Helmer, a middle aged man returns home to the family farm to care for his sick father. The LGBT community is mostly a hyper-urban tribe, so a film such as this, that deals with the isolation of rural life in such an honest yet sophisticated manner, is very welcome. Nanouk Leopold narrates this film using suggestion and implication much more than explanation and revelation. As such, the film provokes questions rather than providing answers, closure, and tidy resolution. 

Romantic and carnal opportunities knock on Helmer’s door in the form of a grizzly milk truck driver and a svelte young farmhand. Helmer’s resistance to these advances is puzzling, especially considering one of these men’s affections Helmer so obviously and painfully yearns for. A later conversation between father and son provides some psychological context for Helmer’s romantic angst, but it is up to the viewer to flesh it out. This crucial bit of dialogue also provides context for the direction of Helmer’s affection. 

Helmer’s reticent character is given depth and heft by the admirable facial control of Jeroen Willems. The manner in which we come to know the characters in the film is sometimes indirect. Two men deliver mattresses to the farmhouse; we get a point-of-view shot from Helmer’s perspective of the muddy tracks they left in the kitchen. The film then cuts to Helmer washing the kitchen floor with a rag under his foot. Seeing the ineffectiveness of this technique, he gets down on his hands and knees to scrub. We also learn from Helmer’s neighbor Ada that he painted the kitchen and brightened it up. When Helmer shows the farmhand around, the farmhand asks about a manure machine for the dairy cows. Helmer responds that there is no manure machine, revealing his (and his father’s) Protestant austerity. 

The casting decisions of this film are simply impeccable. Helmer and his father share a very similar body shape, giving their relationship a visible credibility. Wim Opbrouk puts in a nuanced performance as the milkman, Martijn Lakemeier captures the all-or-nothing erotic gusto of youth well, and Lies Visschedijk is a breath of fresh air as Ada, the nearest neighbour. A very curious element of this film is the visual absence of Ada’s husband, and the shots of her, Helmer, and her two sons suggest a surrogate family in the most wholesome tones. The casting of Ada’s sons is great as well, as one of the highlights of the film for me is the sheer beauty of the interaction between the one son and Helmer’s farm animals. I’m sure it is no easy task to find a child so ingenuous and gifted in his rapport with animals. 

It’s All So Quiet also uses symbolism very effectively. If you see it, pay close attention to the semantic weight of the weather and the hooded crow, whose significance is perhaps a nod to Poe’s poem “The Raven.” Or perhaps the poem and the film both draw upon an older folk tale tradition. The cinematography is excellent. The opening shots are gorgeous, and the contrast between beautiful, bright, serene exteriors and gloomy, dark, strained interiors is poignant. This contrast creates a paradoxical tension between Helmer’s emotional claustrophobia and the open fields we associate with rural life. There are some close-ups of Helmer’s father’s face so rich and full of detail that they remind one of the poetry Ingmar Bergman found in the human face. There is one scene of Helmer standing in front of a mirror, looking at his own naked body, perhaps contemplating its inevitable decay, that is so beautifully lit, it reminds one of the chiascuro painting techniques of Caravaggio. The minimal piano score suits the film beautifully and it never feels intrusive or manipulative.   

The one shortcoming of this film is that it leaves too much up to the audience. There is a phone conversation, for example, that is not very well contextualized. The audience is in the dark as to who is on the other side of the conversation, which deals with intimate family matters, and they remain in the dark. Such a strategy for filmmaking, often a conscious resistance to the obvious plots and characters of many Hollywood films, is praiseworthy, but some take it a little too far. Regardless, I would recommend this film for anyone who enjoys arthouse film.