Little Tony (Kleine Teun)
Netherlands (1998) Dir. Alex van Warmerdam
Some people will go to extreme lengths to get what they want and probably don’t even realise how detrimental, pernicious and often insane their plans are. Fortunately, this provides filmmakers with a prime topic for having a little fun with.
Brand (Alex van Warmerdam) is a 45 year-old illiterate farmer in a staid marriage to the brash Keet (Annet Malherbe). Tiring of reading TV subtitles aloud for him, Keet hires a tutor to teach Brand to read and write, the younger Lena (Ariane Schluter). Despite Brand’s unwillingness to learn, an attraction forms between him and Lena which they try to keep secret.
However, Keet has already noticed this and encourages Brand to pursue Lena, hoping it will pass and she’ll get her husband back. Keet suggests they pretend to be brother and sister and have Lena move in but Keet can’t hide her jealousy and tension brews in the house. Then Lena reveals she is pregnant, which is just what Keet always wanted – a child. Once Little Tony is born, Keet needs to get rid of Lena.
This is the second film I have seen from Alex van Warmerdam, and whilst he occupies a space in esoteric/dark humour cinema also inhabited by the likes of Roy Andersson and Jan Švankmajer, he is not as outlandish as they are. Little Tony sounds absurd but is grounded in a reality, pushed to its furthest and often ridiculous conclusion.
It is apparent van Warmerdam seems to revel in looking at our dark or quirkier sides, but eschews the usual practice of mocking these foibles for comic gain. Instead, he explores them with a tacit sensitivity that borders on empathy, until he finds that point where they start to drive his characters towards destruction, which is when he makes sure their actions leave them hoisted by their own petards.
With that in mind, we have three such candidates in Brand, Keet, and Lena. There isn’t really anything inherently wrong or corrupt about them, they just have their own way of dealing with life. Brand still being illiterate at 45 exemplifies this, but it also implies that farming is a job that anyone can do as long as they have the drive. With no backstory or exposition, we don’t know how Brand has managed to last this long without being able to read, or why Keet puts up with it.
Keet seems to be on a similar wavelength to Brand in that they interact without being a chalk and cheese couple pervasive in comedy. The love is there – at least for Keet – and they are comfortable enough with each other to disagree without hostility or threats of divorce, the only issue appears to be from Keet’s yearning for children, which may be a medical issue on her part.
Maybe Lena was more of a strategic choice of tutor all along; if Keet was hoping this younger, slimmer, and prettier blonde might ignite Brand’s loins it would put the spark back in their marriage. But the script doesn’t encourage such thoughts at first, since Brand goes to great lengths to disguise his interest in Lena by being so openly rude to her in front of Keet. In fact, Lena is appalled by Brand’s leering and asking to see her breasts before completing a task, but somehow, she eventually buckles.
Early on, the action is limited to the farm house sitting room, allowing van Warmerdam to indulge in a little tribute to the farces of old, in a scene where Brand and Keet flounce in an out of different rooms, doors opening and closing in rapid succession with precision timing as they try to avoid each other. This is probably as universal the humour gets since van Warmerdam is something of an acquired taste but it works wonderfully in this context.
Of course, Keet’s plan for Brand to get Lena out of his system is going to backfire – after all, it was her idea that Lena should move in with them. But keeping up the pretence of being siblings proves the biggest strain for Keet, wanting Brand to sleep with her at night which Lena naturally finds a bit odd. This forces brand to side with Lena by which time he is now in love with her and if anyone is to go it is Keet!
Admittedly, whilst this is all well executed and compelling in a car-crash sort of way, the subplot of the neighbour across the road is lost on me. He is only seen from a distance and barely features with any significance, yet van Warmerdam must have had a reason for making a point of having him there. My only assumption is that he was meant to be some sort of juxtaposition for the chaos of the love triangle but what, I don’t know.
Like all love triangles, this one doesn’t end prettily and not should it, not just for the sheer audacity of the set-up but because the characters invite karma to smite them. For Keet it is a case of reaping what you sow, yet Annet Malherbe does the impossible in making her slightly sympathetic when Keet finds herself shut out of her own marriage, but not completely.
Realistically, Lena is the one we should worry for, being duped into a false relationship, yet her transformation into a demanding fish wife once she has Brand, turns the tables on that. Ariane Schluter seems to have a lot of fun in this role, and is brave too since Malherbe is in fact van Warmerdam’s real life wife! Let’s hope life didn’t imitate art when making his film! Oh, and Little Tony was cute too.
Clearly committed to his craft as a filmmaker as much as he is to remaining an individual voice in cinema, van Warmerdam’s take on life won’t be for everyone, but we should be glad films like Little Tony exist to reaffirm what a strange place the world is.