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Pentimento (1979)

Scientists subjected women to dark and inhuman experiments, in which sexuality and cruelty are fused together





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Credited cast:
Helen Hedy
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Trix Zwartjes


Scientists subjected women to dark and inhuman experiments, in which sexuality and cruelty are fused together

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29 June 1979 (Netherlands)  »

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8 August 2010 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

Pentimento is quite possibly the most unusual film you could ever see. The location is a decrepit art deco spa in a wasteland near a seaport (Rotterdam). It has a strange electronic soundtrack and is mostly shot at dusk or twilight, or in darkened lamplit or candlelit rooms. I think that's the most interesting thing about the film, the very unusual surroundings, and the quality of light. Others may be interested in the graphic scenes of sex and sexual violence which pop up now and again. I must, in Zwartjes' defence, say that they are not erotic scenes. On the other hand feminists protested violently at screenings of this film in the Netherlands.

The facility in question is used for entirely questionable purposes, although we gain no insight into what they are in this film, which is entirely without dialogue. Women are kept in pits naked except for stilettos, which are only removed upon death (that at least appears to be distinctly feminist comment). They are sexually tortured and at one point Zwartjes shows the extremely graphic aftermath of a rape, which says to me that someone involved had seen the real thing first hand.

There is the question of what Zwartjes is up to, what we are shown is not erotic for the most part (except mildly when consensual acts are shown). A feminist point of view might be that the consensual acts comprise simulated rape. Andrea Dworkin once said that, "When two individuals come together and leave their gender outside the bedroom door, then they make love", nothing in the film falls into that pigeonhole. Zwartjes describes his mother as an extremely intelligent feminist, and she also kept him alive during the war when he was close to starvation, so I think that's one of the influences in this movie. Another is that he worked in an insane asylum, Santpoort, for a year. Here he ran into shocking experiences in the female wards and I think that really impressed upon him, and a lot of what we're seeing in Pentimento comes out of that. It's something he didn't get into by necessity either, he quit his work of six years, which had involved playing viola for the Netherlands opera, to go and do it.

My take is that the film, whilst genuinely having some feminist ambition, is really about the aesthetic of shock. I don't mean that Zwartjes is trying to upset anyone, but I do think he's trying to record something atavistic.

Something to keep in mind is that the film is fairly micro-budgeted. The Japanese surgeon who is perhaps the main character uses a hockey stick as a weapon, I am presuming that this is because no-one had the cash to get him a katana, scenes where he attacks a lone stiletto shoe will produce laughter from that section of the audience who always laugh when an art film stutters with its suspension of disbelief. At an uncanny outdoor banquet the same gentleman eats a loaf of bread, presumably because no one had the money to pay for cake! Following Robert Altman's movie Quintet from the previous year, a low budgeter shot on the icy carcass of Expo 67, I wonder if there was some hope amongst the cinephile community, at the start of the 1980s, of a new genre of movie shot with no money in architectural husks? That was a joke dear reader, in case you are being too serious today.

Of many memorable scenes that are allowed by the non-narrative structure, I will pick the scene where the Japanese surgeon has sex with an assistant who has donned tabi and yukata, this claustrophobic shot is edited with footage of a caged tropical blackbird (another Loplop, potentially an Ernst-ian homage), shot in darkness, oockoing strangely, it's call like a zap from a Martian's gun.

Quite mad.

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