‘Frailer’ (‘Brozer’): Toronto Review
Dutch director Mijke de Jong in collaboration with her cast follows actor Leonoor Pauw’s spirited battle against cancer, in what is both a documentary and a work of fiction
Dutch director Mijke de Jong’s Frailer, an intimate portrait of a woman dying from cancer and how her friends and family try to support her, starts out as a semi-improvised fiction and evolves into a documentary when its star, Leonoor Pauw, really does start to die. As such, although frequently poignant and fiercely honest about what it feels like to face mortality, it’s an oddly shaped thing which many viewers will struggle to connect with given the confusing meta-games of reality and fiction. Following its Toronto debut, the film is bound to travel further on the festival circuit, but outside of the Netherlands it will struggle to find theatrical berths.
According to the director during an onstage Q&A, the film started out as a sequel of her film Broos (1997) a Dutch play-cum-film starring the core-foursome of Pauw, Marnie Blok, Lieneke Le Roux and Adelheid Roosen, who played sisters in the stage production. The early sections establish them a quarrelsome but close quartet who strive to put their differences aside to support Leonoor, nicknamed Mouse, when she learns she has lung cancer that’s spreading.
Carlos (Roosen), who appears to be an artist judging by her peculiar ideas, suggests that whenever they’re together they wear four identical, bright-red wrap dresses, the idea being it would provide protective coloration as it does in nature for swarms of butterflies or schools of fish. Later, she presents the others with four identical coffins so they can all have a lie down in them at the same time and see what it feels like. Amazingly, it’s not Leonoor who minds that idea but Ted (Blok), and much bickering ensues. Nevertheless, as with the four-identical-dresses idea, the four coffins makes for an arresting image.
Given the film was shot over three years and whittled down from a massive amount of digital material, caught on regular camera rigs as well as smart phones and what have you, it’s no surprise that it all feels a bit erratic, like something the collective pulled together while doing other things. As a narrative, it’s rather skimpy, and a good deal of the running time consists of footage of Leonoor dancing by herself or with her family, having chemotherapy, and later taking tea in bed as her condition worsens. But as a kind of kaleidoscopic portrait of a strong, smart, very loveable middle-aged woman facing death surrounded by her loved ones, it works well.
Once the collective drops the idea that they’re making some kind of fiction film and the gears shift this into documentary territory, it improves considerably. The audience is finally introduced to Leonoor’s husband George van Houts and daughters Merel and Robijn van Houts, off-stage presences in the early innings, and the gravity of Leonoor’s impending demise turns the film into a proper monument to her memory. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one to cancer will struggle to keep their eyes dry in the final stretch, especially during the scene where Ted/Marnie and Robijn tenderly press Leonoor’s corpse for burial.
Production companies: A Topkapi Films, PRPL presentation in co-production with VRPO, Human
Cast:Leonoor Pauw, Marnie Blok, Lieneke Le Roux, Adelheid Roosen
Director:Mijke de Jong
Screenwriters: Leonoor Pauw, Marnie Blok, Lieneke Le Roux, Adelheid Roosen, Mijke de Jong, Jolein Laarman, Ton Peters, Dorith VInken, Ellen Havenith
Producer: Ellen Havenith, Frans van Gestel, Jolein Laarman
Director of photography: Ton Peters
Production designer: Jolein Laarman
Editor: Dorith Vinken
Composer: Rutger Reinders
Sales: Eye Film Institute Netherlands
No rating, 80 minutes