The latest in Wallflower Press’s ambitious series of 24 Frames titles sets out to eschew issues of national cinema in favour of a regional perspective. That it ultimately fails demonstrates how prevalent and important issues of national identity remain in world cinema. The book, edited by Belgian academic Ernest Mathijs, analyses 24 titles – twelve Dutch, eleven Belgian, one Luxembourgish – which the editor regards as epitomising the themes, styles and production strategies of filmmakers in the region since 1913. Unfortunately, few of the essays manage to provide much evidence of regional characteristics, some paying only lip service to the concept before quickly heading off into different territory entirely.
Part of the problem with developing critical approaches to films on a regional basis, it transpires, lies with institutions such as major film festivals and award ceremonies which insist upon an unambiguous declaration of a film’s nationality. Thus, although many Low Countries films are financial co-productions between Belgium and The Netherlands, titles are usually declared either Belgian or Dutch even in the case of a 51%-49% production effort. Pre-1960, notions of Low Countries cinema made more sense as films such as Jan Vanderheyden’s Whitey (1934) were exhibited across the region as a matter of course, and because filmmakers in all three countries tended to take inspiration from the region’s art history, from Bosch and Bruegel to Rembrandt, Magritte and Delvaux. More recently, however, the three countries have striven to establish local artistic identities, and as everywhere else the major aesthetic influence is Hollywood. The one compelling unifying concept Mathijs identifies in his introduction is eigenheid, which in this context is best described as the process of forming identity through interaction with notions of the ‘real’. Yet this manifests itself differently in the three countries. In Belgian films eigenheid is often portrayed through an enduring mode of magic realism, while in recent Dutch films the concept has re-emerged through the influence of innovative, absurdist theatre groups (see especially former theatre director Alex van Warmerdam’s The Northerners (1992)). These national traits are returned to in the book much more frequently than any larger regional characteristics, as are some other prevalent national qualities: Belgian cinema is characterised by its impressive history of documentary cinema, and by a prevailing theme of identity crisis, unsurprising given its cultural and linguistic divisions; Dutch cinema is identified with an ongoing contempt for polite bourgeois values, often expressed through heightened eroticism. However, almost never in the book are the trends in Dutch film equated with those of Belgian film or vice versa. Little is said about the cultural identity of the third low country, though interestingly it appears that Luxembourgish film tends to be more closely aligned with German cinema than Belgian or Dutch.
One could dispute whether the selection of titles is especially representative of the countries’ film industries over the years. Often the selections seem to be the best films by relatively major figures, rather than titles indicative of major trends at given times. The Belgian industry in the early 1970s, for example, is described as having produced a large number of exploitation titles, but Mathijs chooses to address this through a discussion of Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), an arty, auteurist inversion of the trend which moreover exists in three different cuts – for Dutch-, French- and English-speaking audiences – further discrediting the idea that a Low Countries film would be received in a uniform way within the region. A gap in critical research also means that only one film from the period 1937 to 1964 is discussed – Bert Haanstra’s Oscar-winning short documentary Glass (1958).
The major sense that emerges from the book is just how much more vibrant Belgian cinema has been over the last forty years compared to its Dutch counterpart. Perhaps this is inaccurate, but the book certainly offers this impression. This may be not only because Belgium has produced the more high-profile and accessible films recently – films such as Man Bites Dog (1992), Toto The Hero (1991), Ma Vie En Rose (1997, sadly not discussed here) and the oeuvres of directors such as Chantal Akerman, André Delvaux and the Dardennes brothers – but also because it has the more interesting production backstories due to the constant tensions and competition between its French- and Flemish-speaking communities for arts funding and recognition.
It must be said that just because the book falls short of its intended achievement should not imply that it is not worth reading. Despite some technical errors probably resulting from essayists writing in a language which is not their first, the essays are always informative and readable. Jan Udris’s piece on Marleen Gorris’s feminist cause célèbre A Question of Silence (1982) neglects to address issues of national or regional identity at all, but is a fascinating piece of close textual analysis regardless. Essays such as this fulfil another stated aim of the book: to reverse the insistence on context over text in the critical discourse on Low Countries film. Steven Jay Schneider offers a perceptive account of repressed homosexuality in George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1989) and also addresses Dutch filmmakers’ and audiences’ hostility to overly formulaic genre films, while Bas Agterberg’s detailed production history of self-taught director Jos Stelling’s self-financed miracle play Mariken (1974) puts today’s ‘independent’ filmmakers to shame. And, while Luxembourgish cinema is largely ignored throughout the book, Viviane Thill makes a compelling case for the authentic period detail of Andy Bausch’s freewheeling 1960s-set drama A Wopbobaloobop A Lopbamboom (1989).
However, while the book identifies a number of talented filmmakers who have defied the odds to bring interesting stories to the screen, the book’s preface – a dialogue between Mathijs and Kümel – is revealing in its hope that a globally-recognised star director could emerge from the region to rival, for example, Lars von Trier in Denmark and Pedro Almodóvar in Spain. (Dutch and Flemish critics still lament the failure to capitalise on the emergence of Paul Verhoeven twenty-five years ago.) The emergence of such a figurehead is certainly to be desired as it is somewhat worrying that the Low Countries, especially Belgium, have based much of their quality film production on revered local novels. On one level this suggests a strength of cultural identity. But does it not also demonstrate a lack of cinematic inventiveness in the region? Lack of production money inevitably leads to safer projects flourishing at the expense of more idiosyncratic ones, but it is hard to see Low Countries cinema impacting upon an overseas audience until a structure is established which can nurture innovative filmmakers and allow them to take the risks necessary to produce truly invigorating work on a consistent basis. In this respect, Low Countries cinema may have to sacrifice a degree of local relevance in order to produce films which can reach out to the wider global audience.