Movie Review: Van Warmerdam goes Vonnegut weird with “Nr. 10”

“Reviewing” entails watching a movie, taking notes on it and then using those notes and your memory, your tastes, your idea of touchstone performances, screenplays, directing, editing and production design, to form an opinion of the film and its many components.

But that model kind of goes to pieces — or at least gets a thorough shaking — when you’re plowing all the way through the film and asking yourself “What the hell is going on?” and “What the hell is this about?”

So once again, we doff our hat to the Dutch master of misdirection, Alex van Warmerdam. The director of “Borgman” and “Schneider vs. Bax” lures us into “Nr. 10,” makes us ponder everything from what the title means to a beyond-abrupt third act turn that had me jotting down “Wait, what the hell just happened?” And then he leaves us with one of the more delightfully nasty shots at The Mother Church ever filmed.

I am sorely tempted to simply repeat my blurb for my review of “Borgman” and leave this at that.

“Maddeningly inscrutable, but it gets away with not playing by the rules. Somehow.”

“Nr. 10” breaks even more rules, most importantly the one in which we expect our screen storyteller to “play fair.” It’s not remotely as visceral an experience as “Borgman,” probably not as cerebral, either. It’s certainly more frustrating and less satisfying.

The opening acts are about a new play being rehearsed and kind of coming to pieces as it does.

Leading man Günter (Tom Dewispelaere) is somewhat at odds with distracted, older co-star Marius (Pierre Bokma). We’d feel sorry for Marius, who can’t remember his lines, because Günter and director Karl (Hans Kesting) are messing around with the blocking to put poor Marius in one “inferior” and submissive (overshadowed) position on stage after another. But we’ve seen Marius dismiss his dangerously sick wife’s concerns at being left at home alone.

Acting is a profession that lures the self-absorbed, and amplifies that absorption, after all.

Then we note that leading lady Isabel (Anniek Pheifer) has told her director/husband she needs alone time for “preparation,” and that’s she’s staying elsewhere until opening night. Turns out, she’s motor-scootering straight into Günter’s bed.

And self-involved Günter wants to keep this selfish affair from everyone, especially his adult daughter Lizzy (Frieda Barnhard), for reasons we can’t quite figure out.

Get used to that feeling. It’s van Warmerdam’s calling card.

Marius is about to up the stakes in his war with Günter by telling Karl what’s going on. Karl starts to spy on Isabel. Lizzy is following her dad around to see what Günter is up to.

Karl proceeds to sabotage his own absurdist play, yanking lines to punish this player and perhaps reward that one.

“There are no parts any more, just lines,” he declares (in Dutch with English subtitles). “It’s not a play, it’s a collage…an abstract collage without logic!”

The cast panics.

And there’s a spy in the company who is reporting back to this sports-addicted Catholic bishop (Dirk Böhling) who seems to want to know everything about everyone in this stage fiasco-in-the-making. He is pulling strings to manipulate one and all in service of some grand scheme that, as the headline to this review suggests, has more than a whiff of Kurt Vonnegut about it.

If you react to how this backstage backbiting builds towards something, and then is suddenly abandoned, with a “You have got to be kidding me,” you won’t be the first.

Warmerdam isn’t so much building a puzzle that he’ll solve, or invite us to solve, as grafting two wholly-formed, partly over-lapping long short films together and daring us to make sense of it all.

The third act’s turn towards theological debate seems utterly illogical, no matter how much about a character’s true past is explained and back-engineered. Mysterious strangers whispering mysterious words in your ear is nothing you want to burn through bandwidth on if you’re being forced to learn all new lines with opening night rushing at you so fast you’re sure to snap.

The theater scenes are so cleverly conceived — theater companies are notorious for such “Noises Off” shenanigans — and so well-acted that the film can only become a disappointment when this setting and story thread are abandoned.

As much as I like the challenge van Warmerdam’s satiric experiments always are, including this 1992 film I got into earlier this year, I found “Nr. 10” less coherent and much less satisfying than anything of his that I’ve seen.

Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Tom Dewispelaere, Frieda Barnhard, Hans Kesting, Anniek Pheifer, Dirk Böhling, and Mandela Wee Wee

Credits: Scripted and directed by Alex van Warmerdam. A Drafthouse release.

Running time: 1:39

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
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.