By Indiewire | Indiewire January 31, 2001 at 2:0AM
ROTTERDAM 2001 REVIEW: What Lies Behind; Tense Dutch Premiere "With Great Joy"
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/01.31.01) -- Early in co-writer/director Lodewijk Crijns' ironically titled "With Great Joy" ("Met grote blijdschap"), Luc Sipkes (Jaap Spijkers), receives a telephone call informing him that his older brother, Adrian (Jack Wouterse) has been sighted on a back country road in the Belgian Ardennes. Adrian (called "Ad" for short) has been missing without a trace for 15 years, and upon news of his sudden resurfacing, Luc and his wife, Mieke (Camilla Siegertsz) travel to the Ardennes, where they successfully track Ad down.
What they discover is that Ad (known only as "the mad Dutchman" by the locals) has been living in seclusion, in a rural shack, apparently accompanied only by his wife, Els (Renee Soutendijk), who happens to be Luc's former lover. And neither Ad nor Els is in much of a hurry to discuss the reasons behind Ad's disappearance. Ad treats Luc with a civil gruffness; the brothers both drink too much; a subtle rage begins to show; and the film explodes into violent confrontation. Ad accuses Luc of past brotherly injustices, and Crijns' stylistic austerity suddenly accelerates into a succession of swooping handheld camerawork and narrative-rupturing jump cuts.
Soon after, old passions between Luc and Els reignite, and something angry -- something unseen and horrifying -- begins to make its presence known, rapping against the inside of the locked door in the rear corner of Ad's backyard shed. Intrigued, Luc places his car keys halfway through the darkened space where door meets floor, only to see them quickly snatched through to the other side.
Like that other crackerjack Dutch thriller, George Sluizer's "The Vanishing" ("Spoorloos"), "With Great Joy" makes powerfully suggestive use of those things dark and unseen. And like the recent Slamdance discovery "Wendigo," it draws a base level of psychological tension from the juxtaposition of urban and rural lifestyles -- from the suggestion that Luc, alone in the woods, in a house with no telephone or modern conveniences, is prey to all manner of untold specters.
But "With Great Joy" is about as far removed from the realm of conceptual horror as one can get. It's more Tennessee Williams than Wes Craven, taking us on a long journey into a dark night, where the emotional rift between characters supersedes the novelty value of boldfaced shocks. That Crijns also happens to have made a very scary picture here ends up being something of a bonus.
From the detailed depiction of Ad's and Els' organic living style to their complete lack of contact with the outside world, "With Great Joy" entertains a number of psychological and philosophical possibilities -- tantalizing and loony in nearly equal measure -- that might account for the characters' decision to live as they do. There's even the Cronenbergian notion that some sinister force may have manifested itself in Ad's shed as the result of the unresolved issues between Luc and Els. And all the while, Crijns nimbly strings us along, never allowing the promise of a big revelation to overwhelm the moment-to-moment reality of his (and co-screenwriter Kim van Kooten's) richly three-dimensional characters.
So it's actually a big disappointment that Crijns ultimately does reveal the cause of the noise behind the door, no matter that the explanation makes perfect story sense. It literalizes the up-to-then dreamy ambiguity of the work in a way that the film never quite recovers. All of which is to say that in its final third, "With Great Joy" becomes very much the conventional melodrama it might have been all along in less capable hands; and perhaps too late a point in the film from which to address the multitude of unresolved character issues raised by not one, but two climactic plot twists.
"With Great Joy" still impresses as a tense drama, thanks to the thorough confidence of Crijns' direction (his first feature, "Jesus is a Palestinian," was a Tiger competitor in Rotterdam two years ago) and the deeply felt characterizations of his top-flight Dutch cast. Soutendijk is radiant and mesmerizing, despite efforts to make her look as unglamorous as possible; Wouterse is a towering presence, by turns frighteningly intense and poignantly wounded; and Spijkers imbues Luc with a vacant yearning, desperate to reckon a decade-and-a-half of lost brotherly love