A Dutch matron oversees a close-knit, matriarchal community where feminism and liberalism thrive.
Antonia’s Line won the Oscar for the best foreign language film of 1995, the first film by a female director ever to accomplish this feat. The woman in question was the Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris, who had sprung to prominence with her sensational debut film, A Question of Silence (1982). Under the guise of a thriller about the seemingly motiveless murder of a male boutique owner by three women previously unknown to each other, that first film was an audacious feminist polemic that stormed the citadels of oppressive patriarchy. Made almost as a kind of avant-garde movie which therefore pulled no punches, the film’s uncompromising originality propelled it into the mainstream, where it became hugely controversial. Rather like the legal figures at the end of the film who fail to see that the huge explosion of derisive female laughter is directed at them, hypersensitive male critics missed the film’s mode of black comedy and were offended by its seeming proposition that the solution to patriarchy might be murder. (It was not proposing that, any more than cannibalism was being seriously offered as a solution to poverty and starvation in Jonathan Swift’s political pamphlet, A Modest Proposal: both satirists were taking up an extreme position and suggesting a metaphor that highlighted the horror of a particular social situation in the hope that the oppressors might feel some guilt and shame.) Possibly goaded by the angry accusations of an antimale bias that bordered on hatred, Gorris’s second film was the even more ferocious Broken Mirrors (1984), whose main setting is a brothel in a city where a serial killer is on the loose. ‘They’re all bastards’, says the proprietor about the clientele of her Happy House brothel to a new girl, who, significantly, has become a prostitute out of economic necessity. ‘Even the nice ones aren’t nice.’ Ironically, the only sympathetic male character in the film is literally a dirty old man, a harmless, unseen hermit who is befriended by the brothelkeeper, but who, to her dismay, is expelled from his hideaway because he is not ‘normal’, the implication being that the ‘normal’ male is much more of a threat.
The vehemence of Gorris’s feminism in her first two films even discomfited some feminists, who accused her of being not so much provocative as paranoid (see, for example, Pam Cook’s (1985: 114) review of Broken Mirrors). Nevertheless, The Last Island (1990) continued in much the same vein, being a feminine Lord of the Flies for grown-ups, in which a motley group of men and women are shipwrecked on an island, fall out, turn violent, and where only the women survive. Still, the characterisation of the men is more complex than before; and this strain is continued in Antonia’s Line, which is mellower and even upbeat in effect and allows some males to exhibit such hitherto unacknowledged characteristics as kindness, unselfishness and compassion. Here the nice ones stay nice. Admittedly, the narrative is still unashamedly female-driven and dominated, and the most sympathetic man is a philosophical recluse who would make even Schopenhauer look cheerful by comparison. Yet there is a greater generosity of spirit to all humankind, and an exuberant relish for life’s variety that sweeps up everything in its path. When it was shown at the Toronto Festival, the film was given a standing ovation.
The story is told in flashback by Antonia (a superb performance from Willeke van Ammelrooy), remembering her past on what she has decided is to be the last day of her life; and also by a narrator who only at the end reveals herself to be Antonia’s great-granddaughter, Sarah. The point of view is important, for, whereas at the beginning it is said of their community that ‘men’s noise rode roughshod over [a woman’s] silence’, the women will gradually be given a voice; will insist on making themselves heard; and will assume power over their own lives and, crucially, their own sexuality. When Antonia and her daughter Danielle have first returned to Antonia’s home village just after the war to attend to her dying mother and take over the family farm, they have walked past a wall which has the sign ‘Welcome To Our Liberators’ scrawled over it. It no doubt refers to the Allied soldiers who have liberated the village after the war, but, in retrospect, it will apply equally to Antonia and Danielle, who will go some way towards liberating the community from its chauvinism, prejudice and conformity.
Over a number of years Antonia’s farm will become a kind of benevolent matriarchy, a haven for the misfits and the maltreated of the village. These include the retarded Deedee, who, in an early scene reminiscent of Thomas Hardy, has been offered up for sale by her brutish father. When she is being sexually abused in a barn by her brother, Pitte, Danielle leaps to her defence by impaling Pitte with a pitchfork and taking her back to the farm. Deedee will bond with Loony Lips, who was taken under Antonia’s wing when he was being persecuted by the sons of Farmer Bas, a relative newcomer to the village (he has only been there 20 years). Bas will be impressed by Antonia’s humanity and courage and will propose marriage. ‘The sons need a mother’, he says. ‘But I don’t need your sons’, says Antonia, who will refuse his offer but will later enter into a relationship with him of deep mutual affection. In the meantime, the growing Danielle decides she wants a baby. ‘And what about a husband to go with it?’ asks Antonia. ‘I don’t think so’, she replies. Danielle will have a daughter, Therese, who will turn out to be a mathematical genius. Danielle herself will become a gifted painter and fall in love at first sight with Therese’s teacher, a moment signalled when Danielle, who has always had a vivid imagination, immediately transforms her in her mind’s eye into a vision of Botticelli’s Venus.
And so it goes on. A friend, who has helped Antonia find a suitable young man to father Danielle’s child, turns up at the farm and immediately falls for a curate, who has just left the church because he found it too constricting for his innate sense of happiness; and together they will produce 12 children. If all this sounds impossibly idyllic, one should add that the film is not blind to the darker sides of life. Although a kindly and much-loved tutor to Antonia’s offspring, the hermit Crooked Finger can never shake himself free from his conviction of the fundamental cruelty and futility of existence, and he will commit suicide. Loony Lips will die in an accident and Deedee will be inconsolable, until reminded that ‘life wants to live’ and she must carry on. In the most disturbing section of the film, Deedee’s contemptible brother, Pitte returns to the village and, in retaliation for Danielle’s attack on him all those years before, pays her back by raping (off-screen) her daughter, Therese. All out for revenge, Antonia will arm herself with a shotgun, but, on confronting the rapist, she curses rather than kills him, saying that killing is not in her nature. Women give life, not take it; to do the latter would be fighting a monster like him with the very weapons they deplore. Curiously, though, the curse casts its spell. Later that night, Pitte is to be beaten up by the sons of Farmer Bas; and when he returns home, he is murdered by his brother, who has always hated him.
The fulfilment of Antonia’s curse seems like an element in a fairy tale, and is an example of the film’s narrative and stylistic fluidity. Although grounded mainly in earthy naturalism, paying particular attention to collective enterprise and the women’s domestic labour on the farm, the film also has whimsical flights of fantasy and surrealism. Antonia’s mother sits up in her coffin to sing ‘My Blue Heaven’ at her own funeral; a statue of Mary suddenly smiles; a stone angel uses its wing to clobber an unholy priest who has refused the last rites to a man who sheltered Jews during the war. This rich stew of disparate elements – magical realism, bucolic revelry, Europeanised gloom – was not to everyone’s taste; and even an admirer of the film like Robin Wood thought that the film’s Utopian fantasy, ‘miraculously exempt from the incursions of corporate capitalism’ (1998: 315) was inconsistent with other details of the film, such as the fact that this village, which seems removed from most of the trappings of modern civilisation, is nevertheless situated in close proximity to a large modern university. ‘We need empowering utopian fantasies’, he wrote, but added that ‘they must take into account the conditions within which we actually today exist and struggle, for how can we strive to reach a utopia in which it is impossible to believe?’ (Wood 1998: 316–17). However, it is possible to take the film as essentially a folk-tale or matriarchal fable with, in the words of a Sight and Sound review, ‘all the magic of a Chagall painting’ (McNab and Tunney 1997: 59). Certainly the film is less concerned with social realism and evolution than with the eternal life-cycle of birth and death. This is nicely conveyed in the circling camera movement as Therese’s new-born baby girl is handed from villager to villager in an act of communal blessing; and also suggested in the narrator’s summation that ‘as this long chronicle draws to a conclusion, nothing has ended’.
Since Antonia’s Line, Gorris has moved from filming her own original screenplays and tended to specialise more in heavyweight literary adaptations. She crafted a fine cinematic interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s feminist classic Mrs Dalloway (1997), starring Vanessa Redgrave; and an interesting version of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Luzhin Project (2000), with John Turturro and Emily Watson. With Emily Watson again, she also made a compelling adaptation of Eugenia Ginzburg’s harrowing but ultimately heroic personal memoir as a literary professor in the Stalinist era sentenced to ten years hard labour in Siberia, Within the Whirlwind (2009), which has had only a limited worldwide release. Recently she has directed a television mini-series about the life of Rembrandt. Antonia’s Line remains her biggest international success thus far, with audiences relishing its warm vitality, lusty femininity and gutsy resilience in the face of patriarchal prejudice and pressure, though, in my view, Robin Wood is right in suggesting that A Question of Silence still stands as ‘her finest achievement to date’ (Wood 1998: 317). In that film, the women’s laughter in the courtroom that concludes the trial, undermining the confidence and certainty of arrogant male authority, is as liberating as Ibsen’s notorious and resonant slammed door that concludes A Doll’s House. A Question of Silence alone will ensure that Gorris remains a permanent icon of feminist film at its most powerful, provocative and pertinent.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Netherlands, Belgium, UK. Production Company: Bergen. Director and screenwriter: Marleen Gorris. Cinematographer: Willy Stassen. Editors: Wim Louwrier, Michiel Reichwein. Music: Ilona Sekacz. Cast: Willeke van Ammelrooy (Antonia), I Els Dottermans (Danielle), Veerle van Overloop (Therese), Marina de Graaf (Deedee), Jan Decleir (Farmer Bas), Mil Seghers (Crooked Finger).]
Pam Cook, ‘Review: Broken Mirrors,’ Monthly Film Bulletin, April, 1985, p. 114.
Maggie Humm, ‘Author/Auteur: Feminist Literary Theory and Feminist Film’ in Feminism and Film, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1999, pp. 90–111.
Barbara Koenig Quart, Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema, New York, Praeger, 1988.
Geoffrey McNab and Tom Tunney ‘Review: Antonia’s Line’, Sight and Sound, May, 1997, p. 59.
Neil Sinyard, ‘A Question of Gorris’, Dutch Crossing, Winter, 1997, pp. 100–16. Robin Wood, Sexual Politics and Narrative Film, Columbia University Press, 1998, pp. 315–17.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.