Movie Review By Andrea Chase
"Character," based on the classic 1938 Dutch novel by Ferdinand Bordewijk, is a dark sweeping masterpiece. An epic yet intimate psychological study of alienation. At its center, an innocent caught up in a titanic struggle of wills that starts with sex and ends in murder. Or does it?
The story begins with a startling, violent act. Later, at a police station, the supposed perpetrator, a newly minted lawyer named Katadreuff tells the story of his relationship with the object of his violence, the bailiff Dreverhaven. In the course of the police interrogation, Katadreuff pieces together the lifetime of resentment that led him to do what he did. The stigma of his illegitimacy, his cold mother, and the absent father, who floated like a fetid miasma at the edge of the boy's existence.
Dreverhaven is played by Jan Decleir, with stringy hair and face like a mask, he's the ideal embodiment of the letter of the law he enforces, but not the spirit. Fedja van Huet as Katadreuff has vulnerable eyes and a gentle, childlike-face that makes his misfortunes all the more poignant.
The atmospheric mood of the film drives the story as much as the action or dialogue. There is a subtle, masterful use of color. There among the predominant grays and blacks of Katadreuff's dour world, a tiny daub of color that startles. The white blouse worn by his true love. The tiny yet vivid red of fliers handed out at a communist rally. The ghostly flesh of a naked man, wearing only his badge of office, attempting to dominate an angry mob with the sheer force of his will.
The camera work is also outstanding. Shots from above showing characters foreshortened, cutting them down to size in contrast to the larger world that is not so much vengeful as indifferent to their fates. The tracking shots closing in on the actors and the tight close-ups that cling to them add to the feeling of claustrophobia, of being trapped by a fate beyond one's control.
"Character's" most interesting twist is its secular interpretation of original sin. A child brought into the world with emotional baggage not of his making and finding what measure of salvation he can. These people are not easy to classify. They are not so all good or all evil. But their motives, unlike their actions, are always engrossing and always a surprise.
© 1998 - Andrea Chase - Air Date: 4/1/98
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