Review: ‘Total Loss’

Though in narrative terms pic proves a payoff-stingy tease, the time spent getting there is anything but a "Total Loss" with tyro Dutch feature helmer Dana Nechushtan behind the wheel. Stylistically flamboyant yet drum-taut, the film turns its three-hand character study (from a novel by Karst Woudstra) into an edgy, noirish psychodrama that fascinates despite less-than-full final disclosure. Offshore arthouse exposure is possible, though Dutch response to local release last month was hostile; in any case, Nechushtan is definitely a talent to watch.

Though in narrative terms pic proves a payoff-stingy tease, the time spent getting there is anything but a “Total Loss” with tyro Dutch feature helmer Dana Nechushtan behind the wheel. Stylistically flamboyant yet drum-taut, the film turns its three-hand character study (from a novel by Karst Woudstra) into an edgy, noirish psychodrama that fascinates despite less-than-full final disclosure. Offshore arthouse exposure is possible, though Dutch response to local release last month was hostile; in any case, Nechushtan is definitely a talent to watch.

Pic begins and ends with a dynamically staged car crash, as vehicle carrying three inebriated, arguing men reels out of control in a tunnel; one, thrown from the wreck, survives. Marco van Geffen’s tricky screenplay then commences leaping back and forth in time throughout the preceding 24 hours, fitting together some (but not all) explanatory puzzle-pieces en route.

We eventually glean that scraggly hard-luck case Rainier (Yorick van Wageningen) has been taken on as a sort of houseboy/chauffeur/rough-trade diversion by Duco (Roef Ragas), the noxiously arrogant doctor who’d patched him up after an apparent drug deal gone sour. Their relationship is platonic (so far) but erotically charged nonetheless, as smitten but closeted Duco doles out both expensive gifts and sadistic, humiliating put-downs to his hapless “protege.”

Latter’s compassion is roused upon discovering a young man nearly frozen to death in the shrubs behind Duco’s medical institution. Getting scant help from the callous doc, Rainier drags this stranger to their posh manse, nursing him back from mortality’s brink. The next morning, with Duco off to work, handsome, mysterious Jeroen (Franky Ribbens) wakes unharmed and rather blase from his near-terminal slumber. He informs Rainier that he’d attempted suicide by pill overdose just moments after putting his beloved father — whose mind has been reduced to jello by Alzheimer’s — to permanent rest via hospital bed pillow-smothering.

Desperately in need of a confessor himself, Rainier in turn relates the high-flying, dangerously debt-raising Cologne drug escapade he narrowly fled, taking one dealer’s life to save his own. But the version we see of these events in flashback may be somewhat gussied-up; a less flattering truth is suggested when Armin, the allegedly slain criminal, turns up quite alive and well, demanding Rainier’s hide.

Meanwhile, we keep tracking the trio on their later, disastrous midnight drive, as Rainier is goaded to distraction by his bilious benefactor. Anticipated ally Jeroen, whose loyalties seem likewise governed by mercurial whim, proves no help: He gets wired on cocaine with Duco, making for two loud and unruly passengers. The destination is a New Year’s Eve bash thrown by Duco’s wealthy parents, at which he plans to announce his homosexuality — for no reason more lofty than a desire to ruin their evening and embarrass the A-list guests. But as tempers in the speeding car fray toward meltdown, it’s clear this trio won’t be seeing the new year intact.

Blackly comedic albeit not-quite-cold-blooded p.o.v. (poor Rainier is a sympathetic screw-up, while even exasperating Duco gets his plaintive moments) keeps this dangerous liaison of ill-matched men smoking with tensions both tangible and suggestive. Though there’s potential for homophobic exploitation in Duco’s needy-yet-venomous figure, pic’s pervasive ambivalence staves that off. More problematically drawn is Jeroen — a (perhaps) Indonesian white-collar immigrant written and played as an enigmatic cipher. Staying that way to the end, he finally seems more a walking plot device than a fullblooded character.

If script leaves too many secrets dangling at close to fully satisfy, there’s still considerable excitement, atmosphere and macabre humor in the preceding reels. Nechushtan deploys myriad flashy techniques — slo-mo and time-lapse images, distorted colors, skewed angles — to heighten viewer’s disorientation within the crazy-quilt narrative. Rather than adding up to the usual MTV-style hyperbole, they’re cannily melded here into a visual/sonic bad trip, amplifying protags’ paranoid, self-destructive mindsets. Terrific design contribs are highlighted by Bert Pot’s feverishly imaginative lensing and an orchestral score that’s at times restrained, at others wildly, sarcastically melodramatic. Tech package is first-rate.

Total Loss

Netherlands-Germany

Production

A Warner Bros. presentation of a Lemming Film production in association with V-PRO TV and MaJaDe Film/Heino Deckert. Produced by Leontine Petit and Joost de Vries.

Crew

Directed by Dana Nechushtan. Screenplay, Marco van Geffen, from a novel by Karst Woudstra. Camera (color), Bert Pot; editor, Peter Alderliesten; music, Han Otten, Maurits Overdulve; art directors, Floris Vos, Vincent de Perez; set decorator, Valesca Meist; costumes, Monica Petit; sound (Dolby Digital), Jeroen Phillips; assistant director, Anne Van Dongen; casting, Paul Muller. Reviewed at World Film Festival, Montreal (Cinema of Tomorrow), Aug. 26, 2000. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Jeroen - Franky Ribbens Duco - Roef Ragas Rainier - Yorick van Wageningen
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