Tag Archives: Jan Bijvoet

CAPSULE: EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015)

El Abrazo de la Serpiente

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Ciro Guerra

FEATURING: Antonio Bolivar, Nilbio Torres, , Brionne Davis

PLOT: In two journeys separated by decades, an Amazonian hermit and shaman reluctantly guides two European scientists on trips to find a legendary medicinal plant.

Still from Embrace of the Serpent (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s too weird to win an Academy Award, but not weird enough for us. Still, fans of s Amazonian epics and Apocalypse Now will find a lot to connect with here, while Embrace retains its own feverish flavor.

COMMENTS: As cinema’s first black and white arthouse ethnobotany trip movie, Embrace of the Serpent is a singular event. More based on setting than plot, the languid, reflective trip upriver may grow wearisome for some, but will reward the patient. The emerald Amazon jungle is subsumed into a grayscale haze, making the trip seem both like a vintage period picture and a dream.

One of the Embrace‘s biggest strengths is that it generally steers away from the lectern, instead delivering an eye-level view of a historic culture clash. We see that the Amazonian tribes aren’t inherently virtuous, but can be just as petty, selfish and inhospitable as their white brethren. The examination of the effect of European ideas (aside from the obvious evils like slavery) on the Amazonian natives is nuanced. European Theo argues the tribes should not have a compass because he believes that access to such easy technology will cause their indigenous methods of orientation using astronomy and knowledge of the winds to fade away. His guide Karamakate, who otherwise hates white culture precisely for its capacity to displace his own, unexpectedly makes the cosmopolitan argument that “knowledge belongs to all men.” The compass debate reveals a more complicated analysis than the simple “brown man good, white man bad” anti-colonial dogmatism you might have feared. Karamakate, too, is far from a simplistic noble savage; he can be peevish, manipulative, and bigoted in his own way. Karamakate is far more noble for the flaws that make him into more than a mere symbol or stereotype.

The tone is quiet, melancholy, and mystical. The older Karamakate complains of having become a “chullachaqui,” a sort of shell or wraith, a doppelganger stripped of vitality, memory and purpose. Those looking for surreal thrills will want to pay attention to the two stops at a mission along the way. The earlier expedition is reluctantly hosted at a remote Christian outpost where a single surviving priest oversees a colony of Amazonian orphans. When they return decades later, the mission has devolved into a strange and anarchic cult blending native beliefs with Christian ones. This imaginary sociological experiment is so intoxicating that you may wish the entire movie had been built around this location. The film finishes with a somewhat superfluous color hallucination sequence full of geometric fractals and jaguars that plays either like a more sedate version of Altered States‘s mushroom trips, or like 2001‘s climax with an ecological spin.

The plant the European scientists seek, yakruna, is known by the Latin name “Macguffinus plotdevicis.” It becomes whatever the story needs it to be at the time: a mind-expanding psychedelic, a panacea for ills of both the body and soul, a symbol of Karamakate’s tribal identity. It’s “the stuff that dreams are made of,” and by the end it goes up in smoke, becoming not much of anything at all. Embrace is a leisurely trip downriver towards a muddy allegory, but there are moments when you feel like Col. Kurtz is waiting just around the next bend.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Filled with dream imagery, never-quite-explained symbolism, and a collection of weird (and inhospitable) characters that might have emerged from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust or the more feverish fever dreams of Werner Herzog — with more than a little of Mr. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now around the edges.”–Ken Hanke, Mountain XPress (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: BORGMAN (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Sara H. Ditlevsen

PLOT:  A dangerous group of criminals are lead by a strangely charismatic man named Camiel Borgman, who terrorizes a family after being let into their home.

Still from Borgman (2013)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  Dumping dead bodies in a lake and taking a dip right after is weird, but what about strange underground criminals who perform dark ballets on other people’s property just for their own amusement?

COMMENTS: With a keen focus on power and class, Borgman unravels the culture behind malignant societal ills by dissecting its basic unit (the family), citing examples such as sexism, classism, and a general need to be better off than one’s neighbor.  Although he is compared to in numerous reviews, Borgman director Alex Van Warmerdam seems to be less patient, more starkly manical. This makes Borgman full of surprises from start to finish. It’s cohesive and bursting with ideas. It’s fair to say the film’s cerebral aspect alone is completely riveting and preposterously strange, and its characters have a drastic range in their behavior. They can be repulsive, but then they are cool and funny. The maliciousness of Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) is casual, but it’s not surprising that both he and his companions Ludwig and Pascal (Alex van Warmerdam and Tom Dewispelaere respectively) are given the narrative leverage to pull some laughs while scaring us.

Stine, played by Sara H. Ditlevsen is absolutely beautiful, and Hadewych Minis’ Marina is truly mesmerizing. The way the two female leads cater to the men in the story is erotic but dangerous; we watch as it leads to cruelty. There is a strong and intentionally obvious message concerning the guilt of having too much, of looking out upon society and realizing that you are simply better off than most people, but it’s just an aside. Borgman deals mostly with the eradication of the family unit, a demonstration of how abuse leads to distance and betrayal. Richard (Jeroen Perceval) heads the family and he is a racist misogynist if there ever was one. We watch as his own demons consume him in various forms. There is a plentitude of weird creepiness concerning this family and their interaction with Camiel Borgman and his unusually loyal posse, and it makes for a compelling and mystical viewing experience.

Borgman is incredibly dreamy, and a feeling of almost whimsical, drifting terror is delivered in master strokes. It is relentless. Strangely enough, it does not give the impression that it would make a great midnight movie, or even a good cult film, but that doesn’t stop its strangeness from being potent and penetrating. While seeming to borrow heavily from major independent thrillers like Timecrimes, Funny Games and perhaps even No Country for Old Men (the meticulous and calm way Borgman is shown scraping poisonous resin across a serving bowl), Borgman maintains a freshness that is disturbing, dark, cerebral and exhilarating. It has a chilly and dark atmosphere. The heaviness of small details psychically nestle in your brain just enough to hint at the true malice being shown. The result is magnificent anxiety. Bijvoet’s Borgman is entrancing both because of his extraordinary power over people and his relentless brutality for the sake of an unidentified gain. Only hints are given at the intention behind his and malice, so generalized that it’s ultimately up to the viewer to determine what the true meaning is, if any at all. Bijvoet’s performance has range. He portrays coldness, creepiness, tenderness, and brutality all with equalized vigor. He is calm quiet, powerful, and definitely represents larger concepts.

As for the most important aspect of Borgman to us—its weirdness—the actions of the characters are so ridiculous (and sometimes insidious) that the whole thing ends up being slightly surreal. It is also very comical. The label given by critics for this movie as a straight dark comedy is acceptable here, but there is much more to it than that. The end will have most people scratching their heads, in a good way; it gives the movie great replay value, and it’s almost terrifying in its creepiness. I didn’t much enjoy Dogtooth, the domestic satire most associated with this movie; I found Borgman to be much more exciting in its ability to borrow from so many other movies but still be original. In the end, it was the small details, the humor, the subtlety in performance and image that combined to make Borgman lasting, dark, and really, really weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Filled with surreal touches and shocking scenes of black humor, Borgman steams ahead with the power and inevitability of a nightmare.”–Tirdad Derakhshani, The Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)