Color, 1977, 94 mins. 31 secs.
Directed by Nouchka van Brakel
Marina de Graaf, Gerard Cox, Pleuni Touw, Kitty Courbois, Dolf de Vries, Wendy Ferwerda
A WOMAN LIKE EVE
Color, 1979, 103 mins. 15 secs.
Directed by Nouchka van Brakel
Starring Monique van de Ven, Maria Schneider, Marijke Merckens, Peter Faber, Renée Soutendijk, Anna Knaup
Cult Epics (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Cult Epics' fascinating journey through the world of 1970s Dutch cinema has turned up a few gems and oddities previously overlooked by most English-speaking viewers, and that continues with a shift here to Nouchka van Brakel, the country's first successful female film director. Taking a page from fellow provocateurs like Lina Wertmüller, her work tackles subject matter that was considered extremely touchy at the time (and in one case, may be even more so now) from a compassionate perspective. Her work has apparently been fairly divisive among local critics with many attacking everything from her scripts to her tendency to rely heavily on post-production dialogue work, though there's no denying she's unafraid to go out on a limb and present female characters in a way that still packs a punch.
First up is her initial foray into narrative features, The Debut (or Het debuut), which centers on a pigtailed, bike-loving 14-year-old high schooler, Carolien Sanders (de Graaf), who's brought by her mom, Anne (Courbois), to the airport to pick up two family friends, married Hugo (Cox) and Rita (Touw), who have come to The Netherlands for an extended visit in time for Christmas. After an emotionally fraught welcome dinner, Carolien goes back to her daily school routine hanging out with her best friend, Susan (Ferwerda), and getting permission to go to parties from her distant gynecologist dad (de Vries). While scoping out a potential apartment and later taking a trip to the beach, Hugo and Carolien have a moment of sexual tension that later turns into a full-fledged affair that she willingly instigates, which causes tension between her and Susan while also forcing Carolien to grow up and reassess what she wants from life.
Obviously this isn't a film that could ever get made today (and certainly not in America), but it treats the subject matter pretty tactfully by conveying everything through Carolien's eyes and going into the very dicey (and obviously illegal) terrain involved without resorting to cheap melodrama. The tone here can be a little odd as much of the running time feels like a sweet teen movie like La Boum, and the friendship between the two young girls is actually one of the strongest elements as the narrative pushes and pulls them back and forth. As you'd expect from a mid-'70s Dutch film, there's a fair amount of casual nudity here (thankfully de Graaf was and looks much older than the age she's playing) including a very European moment with mom and daughter chatting in the buff at bath time; again, nothing you'd see in a mainstream movie now, but at the time it was a lot more common.
Buoyed by the built-in controversy over its source novel by Hester Albach, The Debut was a success and paved the way for van Brake's next film, Een vrouw als Eva or A Woman Like Eve. Here we get a great showcase for one of Holland's most appealing stars, Monique van de Ven, who had shot to fame in Paul Verhoeven's Turkish Delight and Keetje Tippel, here fresh off her surprising turn in Stunt Rock. Living in Amsterdam with her husband Ad (Faber) and their two children, Eefje (van de Ven) stays busy all day but feels vaguely unfulfilled and disconnected, even bursting into tears during a large lunch gathering. Deciding "my overworked darling" needs a break, Ad arranges for Eefje's friend, Sonja (Merckens), to surprise her with a new suitcase and accompany her on a trip to the beach in France. There they come across a feminist commune by the sea where Eefje's eye is caught by guitar-strumming Liliane (The Passenger's Schneider), who decides to call her "Eve" instead after they bond while speaking English together. The newly christened Eve and Liliane keep crossing paths and eventually begin a budding romance, which ultimately threatens severe consequences when Ad turns out to be far from an ideal and understanding spouse.
A sensitive and very affecting lead performance goes a long way with this film, which offers a very compassionate and progressive view of a lesbian relationship while taking some unusual narrative turns (like a finale that veers into protracted Kramer vs. Kramer territory, inspired by a true story). The fact that Schneider herself had come out as bisexual and was coming off of a very turbulent personal period at the time adds some interesting subtext as well to the central romantic core of the film, with the two leads sharing some nice chemistry even if they don't seem all that comfortable doing their scenes in English at times. Also noteworthy is the early presence here of the magnificent Renée Soutendijk, who would break through the next year in Spetters and would take the lead role in van Brakel's most popular film, 1982's The Cool Lakes of Death.
Previously unavailable on English-friendly home video, both films have been released by Cult Epics on Blu-ray and DVD featuring new transfers from the archival prints held by Eye Filmmuseum in Holland. They look fine if modest given the sources with fairly flat black levels but nice palettes; assuming these are the best film elements around, it's a nice way to be introduced to both of them as long as you know the limitations involved. Both films feature LPCM 2.0 and DTS-HD MA 2.0 Dutch mono tracks with optional English subtitles; there doesn't seem to be much discernible difference between the two options, and both sound perfectly good given the print sources without any significant damage. The Debut also comes with "Polygoon Journal" (1m52s), a quick black-and-white news story showing van Brakel directing her leads during the fun scene at a discotheque called Veronica; also included are a poster and still gallery (2m16s) and the theatrical trailer, plus bonus trailers for A Woman Like Eva, The Cool Lakes of Death, and Blue Movie. The disc for A Woman Like Eva has a terrific video Q&A with van Brake (39m) from a screening at Eye Filmmuseum's "Women Make Film" program with the filmmaker chatting at length about the process of getting the film off the ground, her initial staunch resistance to casting van de Ven over her age (which led to a very public protest), and her desire to cast Schneider even if the actress did prove to be as difficult as expected and an impediment to achieving the intended sensuality of the romantic scenes. Also included are a poster and still gallery (3m57s) and trailers for this film, The Debut, The Cool Lakes of Death, and Frank & Eva.
Reviewed on April 16, 2021.