Special Feature: The films of Theo van Gogh

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 was a film director, producer, actor, writer, and great-nephew of the artist Vincent van Gogh. The three films in this collection form an unofficial, unconnected trilogy of domestic dramas. Each of the films feature a male and a female principal character and each explores the relationship between the pair.

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.

In all three films van Gogh emphasises the difficulty in truly knowing a person, and that a better, more socially acceptable version of ourselves merely conceals a darker, twisted impulse. There is a strange infantalism to the games the couples play, which mixes uneasily with their explicitly adult sexuality. Similarities between the woman’s partner and father are made, with the lover cast as a replacement parental figure. These incestuous overtones are most extreme in Blind Date, wherein Pom childishly tries to provoke a reaction from Jana by claiming loudly that he had a sexual relationship with his own mother.

It often appears that van Gogh was seeking the same extreme reaction to his films, particularly through dialogue. There is a focus on the vicious power of language and a cruel delight in the bold vulgarity of this oral interaction. Van Gogh’s unfussy visual style of long takes and unobtrusive shot angles also emphasises the spoken word. His use of a three camera system during filming means that scenes can run according to the natural breaks in dialogue. The film is then structured around sequences of conversations about sex, death, life, truth, and politics, which are repeated with variation.

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.

Holly Cooper