Wednesday 10 March 2021

The Columnist aka De Kuthoer (Netherlands 2019: Dir Ivo van Aart)

Director van Aart's debut feature is as arch as they come. Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) is a columnist for Volkskrant (literally 'people's newspaper') who, while not controversial herself, has stirred up a lot of trouble with a piece about 'Black Pete' (a Dutch blackface version of Father Christmas), attracting the usual online trolling directed at women via social media; her many critics advise her to stick to non 'political' columns. Femke's schoolgirl daughter Anna (Claire Porro) has very much followed in mum's freedom of speech footsteps, getting thrown off the editorial team on the class newspaper for commenting about a proposed merger with another school.

Boot has a looming deadline for the first draft of a book she's finding difficult to write, mainly because she has no idea what to write about; while her columns detailing her divorce and home life are popular, anything more political just seems to stir up trouble. But Femke wants to be taken seriously as a writer, and seems trapped by the censorship imposed by total strangers. Her mood is not improved by the construction taking place on the house next door.

Femke befriends an unlikely companion in kohl-eyed, black nail-varnished horror writer, Erik Flinterman aka Stephen Dood, or 'Death' (Bram van der Kelen). He's basically a nice guy who adopts a dark persona because that's what his fans expect; his books are filled with horrific scenes but he can get away with it; people "hide their feelings," he says and presumably this sows a seed in Boot.

She reads and re-reads the vile comments posted in response to one of her pieces, a seemingly innocently titled column, 'The Joy of a Soft-Boiled Egg'. One of them, from a guy who turns out to be her DIY obsessed neighbour, triggers her to action when she kicks him off a ladder to his death, and cuts off one of his fingers as a trophy. As Boot sets off on a killing spree, targeting those who have badmouthed (or is it badtyped?) her, correspondingly Femke's writer's block appears to be broken, and her liberating actions mean that the words now tumble from her. 

Boot's anger at the (mostly male) barrage of hostility almost justifies her murderous instincts, particularly as she artlessly makes no attempts to cover her tracks; we know, as probably does she, that she can't silence every bigot on the planet, but she can at least start with those who offended her. And it's this thin motivational line between being personally slighted and striking a bigger blow for fellow suffering women that makes Femke such an interesting character. In one scene where she, Stephen and Anna are all watching a soppy movie on TV, Femke's the only one crying; she's no sociopath, she's just fed up. 

The original Dutch title of the film, 'De Kuthoer', translates as "pussy whore", a title that UK distributors clearly shied away from. It's hard to imagine a film like this being made outside of a country with a solid track record in free speech politics (the nearest UK equivalent is possibly Alice Lowe's murderous pregnant anti-heroine of 2016's Prevenge). The Columnist handles the blend of satire, comedy and violence skilfully and rewardingly. It's a solid film and an impressive central performance from Herbers, not to mention a stunning debut feature from Ivo van Aart.

The Columnist will be released on digital platforms in the UK and Ireland on 12 March

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