It’s All So Quiet (Boven is het stil)

Netherlands (2013) Dir. Nanouk Leopold

A Google search for this film title instead throws up links for the 1948 German song It’s Oh So Quiet, made popular for most by Icelandic maverick Bjork in 1995. Yet both are applicable to this film from Dutch director Nanouk Leopold, who returns to the subject of caring for an incapable elderly parent, first explored in 2007’s Wolfsbergen.

Based on the novel Boven is het stil by Gerbrand Bakker the protagonist of this dour tale is Helmer (Jeroen Willems), a single man in his 50’s who lives on a farm which he tends to alone whilst looking after his ailing father (Henri Garcin). With friends and colleagues either dying or moving away Helmer becomes more isolated until he takes on a young farmhand, Henk (Martijn Lakemeier), whose presence seems to open Helmer’s eyes to a new life.

That is pretty much it for the plot and indeed for the majority of the film itself leaving us with about ten minutes of story eked out to 87 minutes of screen time. For those of you who like your cinema brash, loud, eventful and easily engaging, I’ll spare you from having to read any further and say that this is not the film for you.

At the risk of sounding like an ignorant luddite, there are also likely to be fans of slow cinema who might even find this to be too glacial to tolerate too. With no musical presence until the end credits, the only break from the deathly silence of Helmer’s mundane life cycle of nurse his father-work-nurse his father-repeat are the diegetic sounds of the farmyard. If you are keen on seeing cows milked, hay tossed and lambs tended to then you get plenty of that to, in between more silent ponderings from our tacit leading man.

The problem, I feel, is one of translation. Leopold has said she was taken aback by the character of Helmer and the way he and his thoughts were described in the original novel. From this one can deduce – or infer – that Leopold was keen to try to capture this inner turmoil and represent on screen through Willems’s performance.

In many ways she achieves this as we are left to wonder “what is he thinking?”, allowing the truth behind his silent manner and the clearly strained father-son relationship to reveal itself after we have drawn our own conclusions. The downside is that by saying nothing we are literally thinking “what is he thinking?” and become frustrated by the lack of answers or even a clue.

For some this no doubt makes the film a glorious invitation to accept the challenge of deciphering Helmer’s looks, body language and weight behind his rare words, while for others this will just be a film which is far too much hard work for its own good, refusing to meet the audience half way and will alienate anyone not on the same wavelength as Leopold.

There seems to be a great deal of assumption on Leopold’s part that the audience has also read Bakker’s novel thus will know and understand what she is trying to achieve; this assumption falls flat for newcomers to the story since we ourselves can only assume that the novel has a narrator to explain what is going on in Helmer’s head which this film doesn’t. Therefore the sight of a sullen man staring into the wilderness goes from being “open to interpretation” to “why the hell am I watching this?”

Amidst the endless cycle of Helmer’s quotidian home and work life, shared in protracted detail, slivers of external activity comes via a kind neighbour Ada (Lies Visschedijk) who pops round with some cake, who may or may not have an interest in Helmer despite being married with two sons; a funeral for a colleague introduces us to a milk deliver driver (Wim Opbrouck), a burly chap who may or may not have an interest in Helmer, and of course young Henk.

In keeping with the silent theme nothing is made explicit, even when the story takes a turn where an emphatic confirmation of what we saw is practically demanded, Leopold still holds back as if to say “Think what you like, although you’re half right anyway!”. Henk is the main catalyst for this obviously, but the true revelations lay with the bedridden father. Only brief exchanged barbs allow us to surmise the nature of their bond which reveals more about Helmer’s character than his father’s.

Being such a guarded character and one portrayed with equal mystery and ambiguity, Helmer is a very hard protagonist to get behind, the wall surrounding him just too dense to allow even the viewer to understand what he is going through. Yet he is a man we can at least respect for staying true to himself, his father and his vocation. His farm is as basic as it can be with no modern technology, his home is barely furnished and Helmer himself doesn’t impose himself on anybody.

Therefore Jeroen Willems does ironically deliver an oddly compelling performance insofar as sticking to the physical and emotional rigidity of Helmer’s character which couldn’t have been easy, especially when having to lug his father around – a fusty portrayal from Henri Garcin – with indifference. Sadly Willems died shortly after filming ended and this was released posthumously.

Having not seen any of Leopold’s prior works I can’t say much about her direction except the long silent shots have an intrusive feel to them. That isn’t meant as cruel, just a reflection on the minimalist approach. As the story demands such low key interactions there is at least an inkling that Leopold understands how to draw on raw emotion for dramatic scenes.

One again I find a highly praised film which leaves me cold. I get what Leopold was going for with It’s All So Quiet but it didn’t work for me. Clearly a more robust patience for slow inert cinema is required.