A month before Emerald Fennell’s eventual Best Picture nominee “Promising Young Woman” debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, a tonal twin bowed in its native Netherlands, as Ivo van Aart’s brittle and occasionally brutal “The Columnist” first arrived in its homeland in December of 2019. Two years (and one Oscar for Fennell) later, van Aart’s festival favorite is finally available for wider consumption, and while it will likely inspire all sorts of comparisons, its ambitious blend of horror and comedy, set inside hyper-contemporary concerns, makes it a stellar companion for Fennell’s film.
It’s not as refined as Fennell’s own debut, but van Aart’s feature directorial debut, with a script by his long-time creative partner Daan Windhorst, often delights in the kind of bluntness that Fennell’s film studiously avoids for most of its running time. And while that is pleasurable in fits and starts, the overall result is a jumpy, fast-tracked feel and an overeagerness to get to the meat (and gore) of a story that needs more grounding.
It starts well enough, as van Aart plunges us inside the world of his eponymous columnist, Femke Boot (Katja Herbers who could pass for “Promising Young Woman” star Carey Mulligan’s sister; let’s make that film). Femke’s made a name for herself with her weekly missives in Dutch daily de Volkskrant, but she’s also become something of a punching bag for a certain class of reader. (Mostly) white men pepper her social media feeds with all manner of revolting comments, happily calling for her to be raped for daring to state her opinion in print, which range from ruminations on soup to deeper exploration of racist iconography.
When “The Columnist” kicks off, Femke is in the final throes of believing in the power (hell, the possibility) of civilized debate. She appears on a local chat show to ask that people “be nice” to others who don’t share their ideas and ideals, but the film’s caustic and comedic edge makes it clear that “The Columnist” isn’t going to be about one woman’s crusade for humanity to stop being dicks. It isn’t even going to be about her hard-won personal battle to stop reading the comments; Femke can’t stop consuming a steady diet of tweets, Facebook statuses, and reader comments that are crafted to make her feel scared, belittled, and very small indeed.
While the film has subtitles, the social media missives are translated directly into English and shown on screen, all the better to deliver their gut punches. Their cumulative anger is horrifying, but Femke’s own friends don’t get it, her firebrand teen daughter (Claire Porro) is too busy fighting her own sexist battles, and even the cops shrug off her concerns. It’s elementary-school bullying, they say; just stop reading it. Then Femke discovers that one of her online bullies is her next-door neighbor and something snaps.
At this point, van Aart’s film struggles to make the jump from Femke the beleaguered writer to Femke the rage-fueled criminal mastermind who has her own handy bag of murder tools. That Femke would be pushed to wild ends isn’t a tough sell, but “The Columnist” somehow makes it one. (Of note: Don’t believe the hate? Mosey on over to the film’s IMDb user reviews to get a taste of what some people even think of the idea of a film about a female journalist fighting for herself.)
There’s a giddy gruesomeness at the heart of Femke’s blood-spattered new pastime, but awkward complications slow the story and prevent it from being fun or as harsh as it would like to be. Femke snags a new boyfriend (Bram van der Kelen as a fellow writer who has a much healthier relationship with social media), her columns go down the tubes, and young Anna continues her own fight against the patriarchy. We get it, both of the Boot women are fighting the same idea from different angles — but those elements only weaken the film’s central conceit.
Van Aart and Windhorst make brief forays into interrogating the morality of what Femke is doing; they are fascinating and layered, and in too short supply. Hebers bridges many gaps with a fluid performance that moves between zippy joy and stone-faced sociopathy, but “Promising Young Woman” already proved there are ideas in “The Columnist” that deserve more consideration than a star who can simply do the heavy lifting.
Film Movement will release “The Columnist” in virtual cinemas and on VOD and digital platforms on Friday, May 7.