Stejn carries a sick Carmen

(This entry was originally published in September. The film was released in selected cinemas in the UK on December 3rd.)

The English title of this hit Dutch film is somewhat misleading. It may be ‘puntastic’ and clever, but unsuspecting audiences could find themselves watching something rather different to their expectations. The original title is Komt een vrouw bij de dokter – roughly translated as ‘A woman goes to the doctor’. What she and her partner discover is that she has an aggressive tumour in her breast. Since this happens fairly early in the narrative, most of the film concerns the different reactions of the couple and how their relationship is affected by the developments.

The film was the biggest hit of the year in the Netherlands. It is based on a best-selling novel by ‘Kluun’ (partly based on his own experiences) and then adapted as a film by Reinout Oerlemans, who, as far as I can work out, is something like the Simon Cowell of Dutch TV. A former TV soap star he became an all-round TV presenter/personality with his own production company and one of the richest young men in the country (born 1971). The film stars Carice van Houten as Carmen and Barry Atsma as Stejn. Van Houten is arguably the biggest star in the Dutch industry and Atsma is an experienced performer, mostly on TV, with a six-pack that seems to be an important of his appeal. (I mention this because there are many nude scenes – for both actors.)

It should be apparent immediately that the film is potentially controversial as a high profile story with well-known celebrities in a Dutch context. The immediate question is whether the film will travel outside the Netherlands – not many Dutch films have attracted audiences in the UK. I won’t give away the main plot points although it’s fairly obvious which way things will go and of course the Dutch audience already knew the outcome. The important factors are that Carmine and Stejn are rich – very rich by most people’s standards. They meet when both are rising stars in the advertising industry and eventually Stejn and his business partner Frenk set up their own agency and the money pours in. By this point Carmen, despite her undoubted talents, is rather sidelined in the business and is bringing up the couple’s daughter. Stejn is hungry not only for wealth and power, but also for sexual excitement with other women, both in Amsterdam and on his trips abroad. This starts soon after the couple are married and continues after Carmen is diagnosed. As well as the nude scenes, the film also shows the effects of cancer treatment in fairly graphic (but very artfully ‘composed’) scenes. It is this mix of ingredients – a rich and spoiled man who many (me included) would love to smack in the face and an attractive young woman humiliated by medical treatment – which is likely to cause a fuss.

Anyone who reads the comments on IMDB knows how some Americans get very excited/agitated about the nude scenes in European films and this one will get them going. Variety‘s reviewer described the film as ‘like a TV movie’. It’s true that this kind of narrative material often does turn up on American TV – but not I think in treatments like this. Shot in CinemaScope with a very glossy look, the film certainly doesn’t look like its production budget was less than 4 million euros. The only way to describe the look of the film is ‘expensive’ (the couple go to a Pacific Island beach resort and the houses and offices are like monuments to the lifestyle of the modern Dutch haute bourgeoisie) and full of aerial and crane shots. I was very much reminded of J.G. Ballard and his novels of alienation in modern hi-tech cities. For me, dealing with this kind of lifestyle is a real struggle and although I found the film fascinating, I can’t say that I ‘enjoyed’ it.

The real issue is whether UK audiences will go for a story about a man who can’t reconcile his love for his sick wife with his desire for sex. Dutch viewers like this blogger seem to have gone for it in a big way. I’m glad I’ve seen it more because it offers a weird example of a male-centred melodrama focusing on a woman’s physical and emotional pain. Yes, I think it is a melodrama of sorts with its ‘excessive’ visual allure and some interesting fantasy sequences using digital effects. I think that my main problem is that although the film made me think about the issues (and indeed how a man deals with his sex drive when his partner is reduced to vomiting and weakened by radiation treatment is a real issue), I didn’t really learn much about these characters – there is very little ‘back story’ and we learn little about how they ended up rich and successful. Stejn has male friends as well as his ‘other women’ and they momentarily look like they might fill in the background, but this isn’t developed.

If you get the chance to see this on a big screen, it is certainly worth considering. Here is the UK trailer so that you can get a sense of the glossy look. Stejn’s ‘other woman’ is Roos played by Anna Drijver.