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BERLIN – How sad to discover an unfamiliar actor giving a performance whose soulfulness and sensitivity are grounded in absolute restraint, and then to learn via the end credits that the film distinguished by his subtle work is dedicated to his memory. Nanouk Leopold’s It’s All So Quiet (Boven is Het Stil) is a lovely testament to the talents of Dutch actor Jeroen Willems, who died suddenly in December at age 50. But this aptly titled, slow-burn drama is also a poignant reflection on solitude, homosexual repression and aging.
Adapted from Gerbrand Bakker’s best-selling debut novel, published in English as The Twin, the story has been pared to its essentials. Leopold’s script doles out small disclosures that allow the audience very gradually to acquire a deep understanding of the man at its center and of the factors that contributed to his emotional isolation. The inexorable erosion of traditional rural life has often been a theme in Flemish cinema, but rather than being the main point here, it serves to provide the textured canvas for a delicate character study.
Cinematographer Frank van den Eeden establishes the tone of the film in a melancholy title sequence of sunrise over fields covered in ragged wild brush, accompanied only by birdsongs. It’s in this lonely place that taciturn, intensely private Helmer (Willems) runs the small dairy farm he has taken over from his elderly widowed father (Henri Garcin), who is lucid but physically infirm and approaching death. From the terseness of Helmer’s few begrudging words as he bathes the old man and relocates him to a bedroom upstairs, it’s clear there is no warmth between father and son.
While Willems’ compellingly internalized performance conveys a lot with a little, Garcin’s work also is admirably subdued. He shows the indignities of old age and dependence on a caregiver but also reveals faint hints that before his strength was sapped he could be a hard man, one who perhaps made no effort to disguise his disappointment in Helmer. “Why do you dislike me so?” he asks his son almost an hour into the movie. “What did I do?” The blank stare and silence with which Helmer responds speak volumes.
Fragments of information also are shared about Helmer’s late brother, whose inadvertent role in shaping the reduced family’s present dynamic is fully elucidated only toward the end.
While the film initially appears to be another microscopic European examination of the slow crawl to the grave, the father’s inevitable death is not the subject. Actually, it’s Helmer’s painful struggle to own a life spent mainly in denial. His first tentative step toward that is clearing out and repainting the downstairs living area of the modest farmhouse, claiming the space after shifting his father out of the way.
A gay man obviously starved for human contact, Helmer is unable either to reach out for a connection – be it sex or just friendship – or to accept it when offered. Overtures come from Johan (Wim Opbrouck), a dairy driver of roughly the same age, who makes no secret of his shy attraction to Helmer; and from Henk (Martijn Lakemeier), a young live-in farmhand he hires, whose parallel loneliness is revealed by infinitesimal degrees that build to a moving physical display. Even the offers of kind married neighbor Ada (Lies Visschedijk) to help out are politely refused.
Given the sparsely populated area in which the drama is set, it might seem that Dutch farm country is an improbable hotbed of hidden homosexual yearning. But Bakker’s story, Leopold’s script and elegant direction and the naturalistic emotional exposure of the performances ensure that each man’s fumbling attempt to connect or withdraw feels consistently true. While the film requires patience of its audience, middle-aged gay men in particular will respond to its mournful sensuality.
There are no major epiphanies or explicit breakthroughs to signal Helmer knocking down the walls with which he has surrounded himself. But in his awkward interactions with Henk and Johan, and in the film’s exquisite handling of death as the ultimate – or in some cases the only – conduit for love, it arrives at an unmistakable final note of hope and renewal.
Ven den Eeden’s unfussy handheld camerawork has an offhand intimacy that perfectly echoes the director’s minor-key approach and gentle observational style. Ultimately, however, it’s veteran stage actor Willems’ fine-grained character portrait that makes the film resonate and steers it clear of melodrama.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Production companies: Circe Films, N279 Entertainment, Coin Film, VPRO Television
Cast: Jeroen Willems, Henri Garcin, Wim Opbrouck, Martijn Lakemeier, Lies Visschedijk
Director-screenwriter: Nanouk Leopold, based on the novel “Boven is Het Stil,” by Gerbrand Bakker
Producers: Stienette Bosklopper, Els Vandevorst
Director of photography: Frank van den Eeden
Production designer: Elsje de Bruijn
Music: Paul M. van Brugge
Costume designers: Manon Blom, Ute Paffendorf
Editor: Katharina Wartena
Sales: Films Distribution
No rating, 90 minutes
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