'Schneider vs. Bax': Locarno Review

Courtesy of Festival del Film Locarno
A darkly absurd and richly cinematic showdown.

Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam's follow-up to his Cannes competition title 'Borgman' is yet another disturbing, darkly funny mystery thriller.

A thirtysomething contract killer is hired to off a retirement-age writer who lives in a secluded lakeside cabin in Schneider vs. Bax. This may sound like an easy task but since Dutch iconoclast filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam is at the helm, it’s an understatement to say things don’t quite go as planned. Putting the “dead” back in deadpan, the ninth feature of van Warmerdam is his most Coen brothers-like film yet, a western in the Dutch wetlands that’s as unpredictable as it is darkly funny. Conspicuously lacking any kind of moralizing, as is the director’s wont, this precisely choreographed story unfolds in a beautiful but clearly indifferent world, in which bad decisions are just as likely to wreak havoc as bad luck.  

One of the most talked about competition entries at the Locarno Film Fest, this should appeal to festivals and distributors who also managed to market the actor-director’s previous feature, the Cannes-selected Borgman.

Schneider (Flemish actor Tom Dewispelaere, not hiding his Belgian accent) is the seemingly perfect dad of a perfect family somewhere in the suburban Netherlands. His wife (Loes Haverkort) and two beautiful preteen daughters are excited as can be the morning the film opens, since it’s Dad’s birthday and they’re ready with breakfast and presents. But then Schneider gets a call from work about a job that should be done before noon. It’s here, in what is perhaps minute two of the film, that things already take an unexpected turn, as it becomes clear from the conversation on the phone that this beloved family man is actually a contract killer, though his loved ones don’t seem to know -- a point hammered home by a running gag involving the chirpy phone calls from his wife at increasingly inopportune moments. 

Schneider's target that morning is novelist Ramon Bax (van Warmerdam), a “child murderer” -- or so Schneider is told by his boss, Mertens (Gene Bervoets, another Fleming) -- who lives in a modernly accoutered cottage on the water, near a stretch of lusterless green marshland that stretches all the way to the horizon. Bax’s family activities that morning include throwing out his much younger lover (Eva van de Wijdeven, who also had small roles in the director’s previous two films) because his estranged adult daughter, Francesca (Maria Kraakman), who is severely depressed, is about to arrive for a visit.

Even this early on, contrasting the two families, as the film’s title does, raises more questions than it answers: The Schneiders are the picture-perfect portrait of bourgeois happiness, except for the minor detail that the paterfamilias apparently kills people for a living, while the Bax clan seems to have rather strange ideas about what constitutes love and a family, especially when it emerges that Ramon is also an alcoholic and drug addict (“I have my coke and weed, you have your muesli!” he barks at his daughter when she dares to comment on his heavy drug use, which is doing his lucidity no favors). And to ensure the two men are pretty much equals, instead of hunter and prey, another revelation is thrown into the proceedings: Bax turns out to also be a hit man who takes orders from Mertens, and that morning, he's to kill Schneider.

Like van Warmerdam’s previous films, which include Borgman, The Last Days of Emma Blank and Waiter (which all played Toronto), the film is less interested in character psychology or backstory than in springing narrative surprises on the viewer. So why Mertens would want two of his men to kill each other, and whether there would be a preferred outcome for him, are irrelevant questions. Unlike the work of directors such as the Coen Brothers, whose precision plotting and darkly absurd humor show a certain kinship with Schneider vs. Bax, there are no good guys or bad guys -- just guys. Like in a war, the only thing that counts is what happens in the trenches, which is a delicious, somewhat delirious and often richly comical chain of events. To do his job that morning, Schneider finally shows up in the marshes with a local prostitute-cum-hostage in tow (actress Annet Malherbe, the director’s wife and also the film’s first AD and casting director) while Bax, having been told his target will actually be coming to his doorstep, desperately tries to get rid of his visitors, which besides his lover and daughter also includes his aging, lecherous father (Belgian actor Henri Garcin, in his fifth van Warmerdam film) and the latter’s much younger girlfriend -- a preference that apparently runs in the family.

There are plenty of elements that are typically Warmerdamian here, including his own role as a writer (an echo of the screenwriter in Waiter) or the attack on the staid bourgeoisie that’s a recurrent element in many of his plays and films, notably Borgman, which elevated the director’s profile significantly when it played in competition at Cannes two years ago. While this film doesn’t feel as pertinent or dark -- also visually, with its whitewashed skies, ditto cabin walls and cappuccino-colored furniture -- there’s a lot of pleasure to be had from simply enjoying the serpentine plotting, absurdist humor and stunningly cinematic imagery. Indeed, the filmmaker’s regular cinematographer, Tom Erisman, makes the most out of every shot, often echoing western setups with their low angles, while also impressing in a final showdown in and around a dilapidated hut in the woods, which is beautifully choreographed in terms of movements and camera placement. And as befits van Warmerdam's godless worldview, the ending is both perplexing and entirely fitting.

Production companies: Graniet Film, Czar Film, Vara, Mollywood

Cast: Tom Dewispelaere, Alex van Warmerdam, Maria Kraakman, Annet Malherbe, Gene Bervoets, Eva van de Wijdeven, Pierre Bokma, Loes Haverkort, Henri Garcin

Writer-Director: Alex van Warmerdam

Producer: Marc van Warmerdam

Co-producers: Eurydice Gysel, Koen Mortier, Robert Kievit

Director of photography: Tom Erisman

Production designer: Geert Paredis

Costume designer: Stine Gudmundsen-Holmgreen

Editor: Job ter Burg

Music: Alex van Warmerdam

Casting: Annet Malherbe

Sales: Fortissimo


No rating, 107 minutes