In “The Northerners” and “The Dress,” Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam proved himself an original observer of bizarre human behavior, unafraid to touch nerves with his scabrous sense of humor. His accomplished fourth feature, “Little Tony,” is both blacker and more tightly focused. A droll comedy about power and possessiveness within a less-than-harmonious menage a trois, the film steadily darkens its mood as it proceeds unpredictably toward the three-way tangle’s drastic solution. The director’s last feature traveled widely through specialized distribs, and while this one is likewise not for broad audiences, it should do the same.
Both “The Northerners” and “The Dress” featured sprawling ensembles of characters, many of whom were only fleetingly introduced. Based on van Warmerdam’s play, “Little Tony” is a three-hander that gets much better acquainted with its characters and the unexpected ways in which they bounce off one another. The quintessentially Dutch setting is a picture-book farmhouse and barn situated in the middle of a green expanse of pastureland.
Illiterate farmer Brand (van Warmerdam) and his overweight, offal-eating wife, Keet (Annet Malherbe), seem basically happy despite her yearning for a child she presumably is unable to have. At precisely what point she hatches her plan to remedy that situation is unclear. But she sets the wheels in motion, perhaps unconsciously, by bringing smart city girl Lena (Ariane Schluter) into the house to teach Brand to read and write.
Brand’s attraction to his shapely teacher, her casual flirtation with him and Keet’s suspicious, supervisory air are energetically played in the story’s very funny establishing stretch. Heightening that energy is a compact set not unlike that of a stage farce, which provides for a flurry of sudden entrances and exits through adjoining doors. When manipulative Keet gets an inkling of Brand’s designs on Lena, she encourages him to make a move on her, facilitating this by convincing him to pass themselves off as brother and sister.
Much of the humor recedes in the uneasy midsection, when Lena moves in and the two strong-willed women stake out their domain while the slow-witted, weaker Brand is henpecked into taking sides with one and then the other.
This change of mood creates a mild feeling of flatness after the opening’s brisk comedy, but van Warmerdam clearly has a purpose, laying the foundation for the dark developments that follow. Despite her hostility to the house’s new mistress, Keet steps aside and accepts secondary status when Lena gives birth to a baby, Little Tony. But her plan to usurp the maternal role and eliminate the romantic competition puts her back on top, calling for decisive action from Brand.
From the director’s main-title paintings of the farm, the house and its interiors, through the rich colors and tidy compositions in lenser Marc Felperlaan’s handsomely lit frames, the film is composed down to its last detail. A slight uncertainty of tone weighs on the midsection before Keet’s desperate scheme is revealed, but the writer-director’s wit and dexterity are always in evidence, making this a stylish assault on the imperiled institutions of marriage and family.
The three leads contribute sharp characterizations and a firm grasp of the material’s deadpan eccentricity, especially Malherbe, who creates a pragmatic, purposeful, not unsympathetic villain who recalls Shirley Stoller’s Martha in “The Honeymoon Killers.”