Classic Film Review: What does one make of Alex van Warmerdam’s “The Northerners” (1992)?

Film Movement+ is streaming a retrospective of the deadpan Dutch satirist Alex van Warmerdam beginning in March. So if you were intrigued by any film of his you might have stumbled into in North America — 2013’s “Borgman” was the most famous — here’s a chance to dip into a world of this award winning, film festival favorite.

Film Movement is offering six films surveying his career, and while I’ll get to others, I’m going to come right out and say that maybe the cryptic and drier-than-dry “The Northerners (De noorderlingen) ” shouldn’t be your entre into the mind of this ironist.

Set in a an unfinished/never-will-be-finished Dutch planned community in the early ’60s, it plays up the clash of provincialism with modernity as we grimly grin at lives of not-so-quiet desperation.

They have lovely new flats, a shiny new school and an antiseptic tree farm (planned) forest. But small town nosiness, gossip, sexual frustrations, religious superstition and values have followed them there. Nobody can meet his or her own needs. Nobody is happy.

Jacob (Jack Wouterse) is the randy, pot-bellied butcher, a man whose never-ending “needs” aren’t being met by his Catholic wife Martha (Annet Malherbe). He is jumping her, she is fending him off and looking to her “living” statue of St. Francis for relief.

Their son (Leonard Lucieer) finds escape in dressing up in his vision of what his hero, Congolese founding father and future martyr Patrice Lumumba. A little Dutch boy riding around in leopard-spotted cape, cap and blackface is quite the hoot, right?

Forest ranger Jager (Rudolf Lucieer) is keeping the secret that he’s sterile, which has frustrates his frisky wife Elisabeth (Loes Wouterson) no end. He takes out his frustrations on anyone intruding in “my forest” which he oversees, with a bolt-action rifle, according to “my rules.”

But as we glimpse these lives lived on one unpaved street, with flats and shops and forest and school all in a neat, Dutch row, we figure out that the reason we know all this is the postman Plagge (van Warmerdam himself), a busybody who delivers mail on his own schedule. That’s because he keeps a tea kettle hidden in a pond in the forest. Every day, he stops, lights a fire, boils water and steams open everybody’s letters. The bills? He uses them to light the fires.

That’s pretty much an open secret, but the sniveling smart-ass greets every accusation with mock outrage.

“Imagine, a postman going through everybody’s mail!” (in Dutch, with English subtitles). The very idea!

The most serious shortcoming of “The Northerners” is how little van Warmerdam does with these characters. The situations — Jager chasing and hoping to catch Plagge in the act of lighting his inquisitive little fires, pointing his rifle at everybody, Jakob’s boorish efforts to get around his wife’s sexual reluctance with more willing partners, the women of the town visiting Martha as if she’s the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary — quickly become repetitive.

Jager’s seething rage, Jakob’s simmering fury, Martha’s hunger strike, the postman’s one-step-too-far reckoning, Elisabeth’s unrequited affection, a sexual initiation, the buzzard sitting on the edge of a marital bed, none of it takes us anywhere we want or need to go.

The unending irony and myopia mean the entire film has pretty much the same pitch, beginning to end. No incident or situation raises or lowers that pitch, no emotion arises from tragedy, no realization that everybody might learn everybody else’s secret and new character (an actual African or “escaped Negro” showing up) or crime changes anything.

The odd cute moment is rare enough to seem out of place. Whatever van Warmerdam is winking at, nothing much here passes for entertainment, enlightenment or edification. And “unpleasant” at every turn is hardly a substitute for anything this heartless film seems to lack.

Rating: unrated: violence, sexual situations

Cast: Jack Wouterse, Annet Malherbe, Loes Wouterson, Rudolf Lucieer, Leonard Lucieer and Alex Van Warmerdam.

Credits: Directed by Alex van Warmerdam, scripted by Ale van Warmerdam and Aat Ceelen. A Film Movement+ release.

Running time: 1:45

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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