Frosh Dutch helmer Tjebbo Penning has fashioned a sleek, highly stylized arthouse thriller that, fragmented in time and space, neatly resolves into a portrait of fictional painter Morlang, a middle-aged megalomaniac who feeds off his muses. This fun but facile hall of mirrors boasts all the effects of an Atom Egoyan film without the underlying emotion: austere 35mm compositions of carefully muted landscapes exist cheek-by-jowl with gallery-wall blowups of a roving DV camera, grainy nighttime surveillance footage and the mysterious videotape of a dead wife. Surprisingly, though, pic’s revelation of Morlang’s traumatic secret proves worth waiting for. Set in Amsterdam and along the Irish coast, but shot in English for reasons that have more to do with sales than plot, pic’s well-crafted suspense and high-end polished look may well land it a theatrical opening and limited run before settling into a solid life on cable.
Penning delights in moving his character through time warps and spatial compressions: Morlang and his wife walk out the door while, in another part of the frame, his mistress from two years later descends the stairs. Director posits an odd reason for his central character’s overweening narcissism — part ironic distance, part artistic complicity.
Just as Morlang placed himself in the middle of many of his canvases, Penning places his Morlang (Paul Freeman) in the center of every frame of this film-puzzle, either as subject or as implied p.o.v. and sometimes, confounding chronology, as both.
In a key scene, Morlang climbs onto the roof of a rival artist’s studio to spy on the adultery to which he, in his jealousy and envy, has more or less driven his wife. He peers through an opening in the skylight, but the reversed, appropriately high-angle shot reveals Morlang’s anguished re-entry into his own house. He immediately photographs his anguish, turns the photo into slides, then projects, paints over and transforms this private moment into a saleable canvas that also serves as a mute reproach for his returning spouse. Adding another dimension, Penning uses such set pieces to etch a disapproving celebration of artifice for artifice’s sake.
British, Irish and Dutch cast is uniformly excellent. Freeman’s Morlang offers a fine study in arrested development. Diana Kent, as the wife who sees too much, and Susan Lynch as the fey Irish muse nicely complement each other. Technical credits, particularly Hans Wennink’s crisp lensing, are impressive.