A young man and a young woman have just been married and lead a respectable average life. They seem to be happy with their IKEA-existence, until the cosmetics, they have rubbed their illusionary life with, begin to show some cracks. Then everything that appears to be normal, begins to turn around. Hunting & sons will be an artistic film delivering a razor sharp image of 'average Holland at its narrowest'. Written by
In this Dutch film, the director's second feature, Berger and his collaborators on the screenplay, Dragon Bakema and Maria Kraakmank (who also play the two main characters, Tako and Sandra) have devised a chilling and powerfully disturbing study of the meltdown of a marriage. Tako's father has died, prompting him to move from the big city back to the small town of Den Oever and take over his father's bike shop. His mother movies to a retirement community, and Tako and Sandra move into the apartment above the shop.
In their synopsis for the press kit, the filmmakers write, "Tako and Sandra really shouldn't have married in the first place. The only things they have in common are superficialities and material happiness. The interior of their house, made up of furniture and trinkets from IKEA and Habitat catalogues, is a reflection of their passionless relationship. They both work hard -- Sandra at an employment agency and Tako at the bike shop -- yet there is hardly any communication between them." This partial description shows both the strength and the weakness of Hunting & Sons/Hunting & Zn. The film makers treat their young couple, whose marriage we witness, like insect specimens on a tray. It's good that the trajectory is quite clear, and that doesn't make watching what happens any less surprising and disturbing. Though the outcome, in the manner of classical tragedy, is inevitable, its specifics are not the less surprising and disturbing.
Perhaps here the doom is sociological and psychological. It is also a mystery. Or, to go on with the insect metaphor, it is like the image in King Lear: "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods, /They kill us for their sport." For us, Tako and Sandra are brittle creatures. The go back and forth from work to house, blithely greeting each other with comically jaunty "Hi's" and "Hey's. And they indeed have little else to say with each other.
The are people, though, and when, as the synopsis goes on, "problems worsen as Sandra gets pregnant," we are not looking down from above but watching Tako disintegrate as he tries all the wrong things to remedy the main problem -- that his wife turns out to have an eating disorder and keeps passing out. What may have worked for her as a life stile before without attracting attention, no longer does with another being growing inside her. After her first passing out in the bathroom, which causes Tako to panic and call an ambulance, tests show that Sandra and the baby are okay. But she is, the doctor tells Tako, dangerously thin -- and as we see in separate scenes, she turns out to be much more into working out at the rowing machine of her gym than taking nourishment, even now.
Burger is skillful at throwing down hints at first and later at letting the devolution of the relationship slowly unfold. In an early scene, Sandra freaks out when a pair of jeans shows the crease of her undies in back: too tight! That has significance later, of course. When she first throws up, it's from the pregnancy. There's something disquieting, though, the way she covers her mouth and takes away the covers of the bed she's soiled, as if to hide the signs of her indiscretion. Later, she will throw up again, and not because of her pregnancy.
What happens is ugly, and we can't describe it. Burger is skillful also at showing the separateness of the couple. Rarely has a pair of young people seemed so disquietingly in their own windowless worlds, never more than when Tako takes his drastic measures, and the film cuts back and forth in classic suspense-generating thriller fashion between the two people.
There was something wrong with Sandra, doubtless an insecurity no one noticed before. But now, Tako is the one who completely loses his hold on everyday reality. There is excellent control of process here and throughout the film, which moves from joy to panic: at first, so much "happiness," and so much emptiness. And so many images that become haunting later -- such as Sandra, caught turning toward Tako when he opens the bathroom door, wrapped in a towel, her face masked in white cream, peering out at him surprised like an owl -- or a ghoul.
Another element is the bike shop worker, Patrick (Noël Keulen), and the couple's two mothers, whose reactions ironically contrast with their children's. Sandra's mother is warm and joyful; Tako's unresponsive. Ironically too, Tako's mother is stingy with food, while he is a chunky fellow who likes his pasta and beer.
The elements are simple here, but it's a sign of the filmmaker's fine control of the material that the marriage meltdown becomes a horror show from which you can't look away, much as you might like to. This is strong and memorable stuff. But the weakness for us as modern observers is that we don't accept the strict determinism of the writers' conception. How do we know that IKEA furniture means a couple is superficial? Do their happy greetings and small conversation really mean they have no love, no depth in their relationship? How do we know their marriage was doomed from the start? And if it was, isn't this drama, for all its messy thriller feel, just a little too tidy?
Hunting & Zn was introduced in the Rotterdam Film Festival this year. Shown as part of the New Directors/New Films series at the Walter Reade Theater and MoMa, in New York City, April 2010.
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