Antonia's Line
aka Antonia
Reviewed in 1998
Director: Marleen Gorris. Cast: Willeke Van Ammelrooy, Els Dottermans, Veerle van Overloop, Mil Seghers, Marina de Graaf, Jan Steen, Elsie de Brauw, Filip Peeters. Screenplay: Marleen Gorris

Photo © 1995 Bergen/Prime Time/Bard Entertainments,
© 1995 First Look International
Image reproduced from Elsa Elsa: The Astrology Blog
Marleen Gorris' international hit is a staggeringly overrated film which, both in form and content, should only alienate and confound those feminist audiences that it seems most designed to cater to. The fact that Antonia's Line has been embraced by so many viewers and Academy voters is about as dreary an essay as I can imagine on current notions of either feminism or film artistry. The central figure in Gorris' original script is Antonia (the robust and imposing Willeke Van Ammelrooy), who as the movie opens is waking up to a morning that she knows, from a vantage point somewhere past her eightieth year, will prove to be her last. The few moments of screen time we witness of this older, ailing Antonia before the film drifts into flashback are retrieved from mawkishness by the serene gravity of Van Ammelrooy's presence and by the flat, objective eye of the camera. Not much happens, but we are grateful not to be assaulted by the sort of pearly lighting or Alan Silvestri-type music that the Hollywood remake would no doubt perpetrate (if indeed a worthless object could be made worse).

We are all the more distressed, then, to realize that the cool distance and control in this scene are not the harbingers of a disciplined and unsentimental film to follow. Rather, the mutedness of the opening has less to with that scene in particular and more with Gorris' universal tendency to flatten emotions and eliminate subjective vitality. She constitutes Antonia's Line as a series of events regarded rather than penetrated, as ponderously deliberate as glaciers and barely less frigid. The second sequence, which takes place some fifty years before the deathbed opener, watches as Antonia and her daughter Danielle (Els Dottermans) arrive back in their pastoral Dutch community so that Antonia, who has been off living in the city, can bury her mother and re-establish her roots in the old family hamlet. Gorris handles the dying mother as a caricature to be bandied about, volleyed like a badminton birdie between the realms of broad comedy, cheap sentiment, and muted derision in a film that cannot decide on a tone or a perspective. Finally, Gorris just loses interest in the frail, elderly thing, and the character passes away, confirming that the Dying Mother was just a contrivance to get Antonia back into town.

This is exactly the kind of mechanical and unfeeling approach to storytelling that most sticks in my craw, but Marleen Gorris adopts it as the entire stylistic dictate for scene after dreary scene. To expedite the diorama of a distaff governing body that Gorris wants to construct, she ensures that Danielle has a daughter as soon as possible, so that this new woman may in turn have a daughter. None of these women have unique traits, or at least those differentiating qualities are forever subordinated to their shared bond as childbearers and as women. They are two-dimensional mothers rather than three-dimensional people. The narrative rushes them into the delivery room before any of these women has enough experience, either in life or on screen, to register a personality, or to amass any of the thoughts or impressions that ideally a mother passes on to her children.

Meanwhile, a strange man named Crooked Finger (Mil Seghers) appears early in the movie spouting a continual dirge of cosmic discontentments and "existential" furies. For some unfathomable reason, he and Antonia's brilliant granddaughter Therese (Veerle van Overloop) are presented as exceptionally close, though his mood is not noticeably lighter in Therese's presence than it is elsewhere. Why has Antonia encouraged Therese to spend time with Crooked Finger, if indeed Antonia has encouraged that relationship? What kind of parent would consign their child, particularly one so gifted, to the speeches of such a misanthrope? The reason this can happen in Antonia's Line is that the film prefers to view Crooked Finger as a standard-issue eccentric, a man whose deep and perpetual pain in the face of life (however filtered through his intellectual ramblings) signify to those around him as a "quirk" that makes him all the more lovable. His depression and biliousness are treated as a punchline, either because the men and women of Antonia's village are insensitive to Crooked Finger's anguish (wholly possible), or else his anguished warrants no empathy because it is a dramatic affectation as superficial and ungenuine as the other characters and scenes in the film.

The paramount gesture of unconsidered impersonality, even cruelty, from which Antonia's Line never recovers occurs when a major female protagonist is raped by the town predator (Filip Peeters). Antonia, after receiving the victim at her doorstep, immediately tracks the man down and holds him at gunpoint, temporarily running him out of town and thus winning the joyful approval of much of the community. The incident, then, is delivered in the story primarily to shore up Antonia's credentials as a heroine and her reputation for justice and free action. What ruins the scene, making it something far less and far worse than what it perceives itself to be, is that the filmmakers show no interest in the rape victim's recovery, but only in using her as a mirror by which to suggest Antonia's goodness. By the next time we see the victim, she seems to have recovered so fully from the event that we wonder if we dreamed the whole thing. What kind of writer or director, I ask, subjects one character to such violence only as an opportunity to curry favor for her protagonist? Stunts don't get any cheaper than that.

The greatest shock of Antonia's Line in retrospect is that Gorris' next project, her wonderful adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, was an accomplished and sensitive piece that conveyed that writer's gifts for delicacy, detail, and private epiphanies. Antonia's Line, which seems to contain not a single sincere moment, instead performs a perpetually smug self-congratulation for its fierce devotion to mindless eccentricity, as though showing the audience a string of strange characters was itself an illuminating gesture, regardless of whether those characters seemed interesting, or credible, or even coherent. Nor is the image of an all-female community socially constructive or edifying, if the women mean nothing and represent nothing beyond the filmmaker's own enthusiasm for her project. Deliver us all from filmmaking as lumbering and blinkered as Antonia's Line, a purported homage to female wisdom and bounteousness that is instead stodgy and convictionless. Grade: F

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Foreign-Language Film

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