Friday, November 26, 2010

Alles is liefde Movie Review (Love Is All for you English speakers)

Kiki meets her Prince Charming

I suppose there’s something that should be comforting in the recognition that Hollywood doesn’t hold a monopoly on blatantly stealing from world cinema to create watered down versions of other films accessible to a new audience. It’s unendurably frustrating to see classics remade for new generations or to see successful films from around the world altered to suit American tastes. But we are not alone in the practice.

Love Actually, while certainly not a classic of British cinema, was a lovely Christmas holiday treat several years back. It may have started the sometime trend of amassing a large cast of well-known actors for an ensemble piece by the end of which all the characters’ relationships to one another are revealed. It was well directed and written, had some genuinely sweet, funny and touching moments, and endures as a warm film at this time of year.

I’m not here to discuss Love Actually, but rather a film from The Netherlands called Alles is liefde (Love Is All) that closely resembles it in style, sentiment and season. It’s set in the days preceding St. Nicholas day, which is a traditional holiday in several northern European countries when expectant children leave their shoes outside on 6 December for St. Nick to come and fill them with candy or presents.

In The Netherlands, tradition dictates that St. Nicholas travels from Spain to deliver goodies to the children and so a grand spectacle is staged year after year with a boat adorned with Spanish flags and decorated in red and yellow arriving in the port of Amsterdam to the tune of thousands of screaming children. The role of St. Nicholas is filled by a legendary stage actor. Unfortunately for him, the stage managers, and the children, he suffers a fatal heart attack just before show time and his replacement, chosen out of desperation, is a wanderer (Michiel Romeyn) just arrived on a truck from Spain. It’s fitting, then, that this new Sinterklaas (as he’s known in Dutch) is later mistaken by a vagrant for the real deal.

His arrival signals the start of various relationship reparations starting with his saving the life of a young girl who falls in the water. This girl is the daughter of Ted (Thomas Acda) and Simone (Anneke Blok). He’s recently lost his job, is embarrassed to admit it to his wife, and as a result of his odd behavior she begins to suspect an affair. There’s also the engaged gay couple, Victor and Kees. Kees is harboring deep pain over his father’s abandonment of the family when he was three and his mother’s recent death. Klaasje  (Wendy van Dijk) and Dennis (Peter Paul Muller) are recently divorced owing to his affair. He desperately wants her back. She’s ready to fling herself at a young stud she meets in an unlikely place.

Rounding out the interconnecting stories is Kiki (Carice van Houten), who meets her (literal) Prince Charming while dressed as a gift for the St. Nicholas festival. She’s a department store clerk and the man she falls for is Prins Valentijn (Jeroen Spitzenberger), the actual prince (in the story’s fictional world) of The Netherlands. He demonstrates, just like Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister in Love Actually, that a man in an extraordinary position can still find love with a woman in an ordinary one. In order to get closer to Kiki, he takes a job in her store as a Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). These characters are St. Nick’s helpers. They are generally portrayed by white actors in blackface and Valentijn is encouraged by the store manager to dance around, smile big and act silly. Sound familiar? Yeah, The Netherlands still has some issues to work out for itself.

The individual stories are charming enough, but somewhat lacking the same heart that Richard Curtis achieved with Love Actually. Joram Lürsen directed Love Is All and gave a brief introduction when it was screened earlier this month at the Seville European Film Festival. He spoke of his intention to bring together the child’s tale of Sinterklaas with the search for love. There’s a parallel he’s trying to draw which is that both Sinterklaas and love require belief to survive. Without children who believe in him, Sinterklaas would cease to exist. Likewise without adults to believe in it, love would also disappear.

It’s fitting then, that Sinterklaas Jan is the unifier that brings the people together in the end. Of course he fits into the grand scheme in a remarkable coincidence that defies most common sense. Lürsen‘s sentiment is admirable, but I wonder if he realizes the logical conclusion of his premise, which is that love is imaginary and only exists as a fantasy grasped onto tightly by suckers who don’t know any better. So think about that next time you tell someone you love him.

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