Love Life (Komt een vrouw bij de dokter)

Netherlands (2009) Dir. Reinout Oerlemans

Cancer. A six-letter word that can strike fear into the hearts of the sturdiest of people. Some can beat it, others are not so lucky. Either way, it is a real test of resolve and fortitude for everyone affected, not just the unfortunate soul who contracts the disease. This is where the true mettle of a person is found and judged.

Advertising exec Stijn (Barry Atsma) lives a hedonistic life style suited to his unabashed vanity until he meets Carmen (Carice van Houten), also with a zestful and adventurous side. After a whirlwind romance, they marry and have a daughter Luna (Yfke Wegman) yet Stijn continues to have random affairs which Carmen forgives him for. Then tragedy hits the family when Carmen is diagnosed with breast cancer.

It is aggressive enough for Carmen to have a mastectomy but Stijn stands by Carmen all the way through the chemo and recovery process. Despite his avowed loyalty in lieu of the missing breast, Stijn finds himself missing he full sexual experience and turns to Roos (Anna Drijver) to compensate, leading to a tempestuous affair which Carmen finds out about.

Usually a character like Stijn would be a lazy trope, created to gain additional sympathy for the aggrieved wife; conversely, an even lazier trope is the self-centred party boy changing his ways having found “the one”. Stijn is totemic of the frankness we’ve come to expect from Scandinavian cinema and Love Life (aka Stricken) in that respect is very frank in covering the topic of cancer and the shameless solipsism of Stijn.

But more shocking than that is Stijn is actually based on a real life person, Ray Kluun, who fictionalised his own life story of cheating on his wife as she was dying of cancer in his novel Komt een vrouw bij de dokter (literally: “a woman goes to the doctor”), with Carmen representing Kluun’s late wife Judith.

Essentially, there are two concurrent stories here – Carmen’s battle against cancer and Stijn’s affair with Roos. The latter is painted as an addiction, Stijn equating his infidelity with smoking (which he also does), doing little to endear him to his audience whilst his business partner and best friend Frank (Jeroen Willems) turns a blind eye, often saving Stijn from trouble .

For the bulk of the film, it seems Stijn is beyond redemption, taking his wedding ring off whenever he goes out (and almost losing it if it wasn’t for Frank), turning on the charm to earn Carmen’s forgiveness even after Luna is born. Once the cancer returns more  aggressive than before, Stijn goes off the rails completely; despite being there for Carmen whenever she needs him, he feels he’s put up with enough and is entitled to his dalliances with Roos to get his mojo back.

The big question is why Carmen puts up with all of this, and he answer is, she doesn’t always, once Roos becomes a regular lover. The key to this is the marriage vow “for better or for worse” – Carmen takes it at face value, Stijn needs reminding he made the same pledge. Yet there is a genuine love between them and Stijn doesn’t want his wife to die and supports her in her fight extending his love to Luna.

What we have is someone who wants the freedom to sow his wild oats and play by his own rules but evidently is needy – he needs to be loved, a part of something and most importantly doesn’t want to be left alone. One night stands and Roos offer him all of this yet it is his connection to Carmen that is the rarest and strongest in being his true love; shame he can’t stop being a slave to his rampant libido.

Carmen’s journey in battling cancer offers a fascinating look at the various stages and treatments available, covering all of the side effects from the unfortunate (hair loss) to the right down to the impersonal and undignified reactions of the body not normally reflected in films or TV. Maybe it is too thorough and graphic for some in its depiction but, adding extra credence to the aforementioned honest and rawness.

First time director Reinout Oerlemans, a noted Dutch TV soap actor, sets himself a lofty challenge in bringing Kluun’s novel to the screen, making a decent fist of it, although one can detect his soap opera past in some of the more melodramatic scenes, especially near the end when the aim is to get the tears flowing. Yet, Oerlemans manages to keep these emotional moments on the right side of touching, helped by his excellent cast.

One area Oerlemans shows his flair for filmmaking is in the juxtaposition of the two stories – in one scene, Carmen is shown walking down a quite, lonely hospital hall for her chemo intercut with Stijn walking in a packed nightclub looking for his next conquest. Another moment involving a bare breasted girl is not for the squeamish but is a chilling allegory for the conflicted thoughts in his head.

Stijn is a complex and narcissistic louse yet still human despite his glaring flaws, and Barry Atsma is scarily precise in relaying both sides of this morally aberrant man that we do warm to him by the end. Carice van Houten gives herself over completely to the role of Carmen, showing confidence in Oerleman’s direction by allowing herself to be stripped bare of her dignity and vivacious spirit whilst maintaining a semblance of integrity as her strength and vitality is sapped from her. We might not understand her decision regarding Stijn’s cheating but in van Houten’s hands, Carmen is easy to support.

An uncomfortable and emotionally draining film, Love Life is enlightening, infuriating yet thoroughly engrossing through its bold approach to its sensitive subject. As morally questionable as it is, the raw depiction of the ravages of cancer hits hard as it should, under the guise of a serviceable, well made drama.