A middle-aged architect phones a sex-line and replies to a personal ad by Sarah, an intriguing young woman who shares his affinity for art…a conjurer performs a grotesque magic show with a dead rabbit whilst a dark-haired woman looks on almost fondly…a war correspondent laments his bad luck at having to interview a coke-snorting film star with silicon-enhanced breasts…
These are the opening scenes from three films by the late Theo van Gogh. 1-900 (1994), Blind Date (1996), and Interview (2003) have been made available to buy for the first time in a new collection of the controversial Dutch film-maker’s work.
Van Gogh became increasingly well-known internationally after he was brutally murdered in 2004. His collaboration with Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the film short Submission (2004), which heavily criticised the treatment of women in Islam, provoked outrage amongst some Muslims after its public broadcast. Soon after van Gogh was assassinated as he cycled to work by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim extremist.
Van Gogh’s speciality was precisely this painful examination of self-destructive relationships between men and women. In the films the couples border on abusive, they simultaneously love and hate one another.
Each couple also has an unsettling older man/ younger woman dynamic with strong elements of fantasy and the role-playing of different personas. In 1-900 Sarah and Thomas’ strictly once a week phone sex relationship means that they can never meet, and they thus lie freely about their appearances and every personal detail of their lives. Conversely, in Blind Date an estranged husband and wife who know one another’s most intimate secrets repeatedly pretend to be strangers meeting though personal ads in order to work through the shared grief of their young daughter’s death.
Finally, in Interview the characters and audience are both made to question the identity and honesty of both the serious male journalist and the vapid female celebrity who play a dangerous cat and mouse game.
However, this preoccupation with language means that van Gogh’s characters are so underdeveloped that they often appear as bland copies rather than fully formed humans who actually think intellectually or emotionally about the grand socio-political ideas van Gogh makes them say.
In his desire for provocation van Gogh is comparable to art-house contemporaries such as Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, and Gaspar Noe. Unfortunately, Van Gogh’s films display little of the sly wit, mischievous humour, and real introspection that make the work of the aforementioned directors so fascinating. Ultimately, van Gogh’s films have many interesting elements but never quite come to life as a whole.