A distinctively offbeat voice, Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam delivers his darkest, arguably most accomplished film yet with the black comedy-thriller "Grimm." Inadvertently homicidal modern-day Hansel and Gretel combines deadpan humor and energizing bursts of physical comedy with David Lynchian weirdness and menace.

Already established in films like “The Northerners,” “The Dress” and “Little Tony” as a distinctively offbeat voice, Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam delivers his darkest, arguably most accomplished film yet with the black comedy-thriller “Grimm.” Story of an inadvertently homicidal modern-day Hansel and Gretel combines deadpan humor and energizing bursts of physical comedy with David Lynchian weirdness and menace, resulting in a bracingly original fairy tale. While it may be too twisted for some tastes, adventurous niche distribs should find an audience ready to be tickled by the film’s wicked charms.

Tipping his hat to the Brothers Grimm, van Warmerdam weds the genre’s sinister atmosphere with droll absurdism. He fashions what, in a certain sense, is also a road movie that starts in the wintry farmlands and gloomy woods of Holland and continues under the scorching sun of Spain before climaxing in the fabricated world of a Wild West ghost town.

Ushered deep into the forest on the pretext of gathering firewood, Marie (Halina Reijn) and Jacob (Jacob Derwig) are abandoned by their impoverished parents, with only a note from their mother advising them to seek a home with their uncle in Spain. Their first taste of the world’s hidden dangers comes when a farmer (Frank Lammers) offers shelter but then holds them prisoner, forcing Jacob to provide stud service for his tubby wife (Annet Malherbe). The couple and their prize cow are eliminated the next morning in a hilarious comic set piece.

Next up, Marie tries her hand at low-rent prostitution, but Jacob’s jealousy and possessive feelings for his beloved sis prompt him to intervene, hastening the demise of her hapless john (Jaap Spijkers).

Hopping on a moped, the siblings flee to Spain, which in the film’s surreal sense of geography, appears to lie at the opposite end of a tunnel. They suffer a setback when they find their uncle has died, but appear to get lucky when Marie meets and instantly marries wealthy surgeon Don Diego (Carmelo Gomez). But things turn ugly fast.

Irresponsible, borderline clueless and mildly incestuous, Marie and Jacob are unlikely heroes, but the script offsets their more questionable behavior with an underlying innocence, mutual loyalty and survivalist pragmatism. Adding to their blamelessness, the characters are conceived as children in adults’ bodies, a paradox nicely realized in Reijn and Derwig’s subtly mischievous performances. Gomez also appears to relish the invigorating contradictions of a film that spices Flemish comic sensibility with a more fiery Spanish flavor — and faint ring of Bunuel.

Van Warmerdam’s skill as a visual stylist is again evident in lenser Tom Erisman’s crisp compositions and in the sharp transition from the somber darkness of the Dutch scenes to the bold primary colors and dazzling light of Spain.

While some tightening of the final stretch in the deserted town might be profitable, the director maintains a steady rhythm, making economical use of his own acoustic guitar score.

Grimm

Netherlands

Production

An A-Film Distribution release of a Fortissimo Film Sales presentation of a Graniet Film production. (International sales: Fortissimo Film Sales, Amsterdam.) Produced by Marc van Warmerdam. Executive producers, Wouter Barendrecht, Michael J. Werner. Directed, written by Alex van Warmerdam.

Crew

Camera (color), Tom Erisman; editor, Stefan Kamp; music, van Warmerdam; production designer, Miguel Lopez Pelegrin; costume designers, Bina Daigeler, Leonie Polak; sound (Dolby Digital), Roberto van Eijden; sound designer, Peter Plamman; line producer, Wim Lehnhausen; assistant director, Marc van der Bijl; casting, Annet Malherbe, Camilla-Valentine Isola. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 10, 2003. (Also in San Sebastian festival -- competing.) Running time: 104 MIN. (Dutch and Spanish dialogue)

With

Marie - Halina Reijn Jacob - Jacob Derwig Diego - Carmelo Gomez Teresa - Elvira Minguez Luis - Ulises Dumont
With: Frank Lammers, Annet Malherbe, Maria Teresa Berganza, Johan Leysen, Peggy Sandaal, Jaap Spijkers, Laura Cepeda.
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