IFFR 2019: GOD ONLY KNOWS
Mijke De Jong's new feature God Only Knows expresses in wry, comic fashion the near despair that one middle-aged, middleclass Dutch man on medication feels at the general plight of humanity.
Dismayed by the apocalyptic images of religious wars, global warming and the refugee crisis that flicker across his computer screen, and convinced that the "whole world is being betrayed", Thomas takes a running leap into the nearest canal. When he is fished out, it is up to his long suffering sisters, Hannah and Doris, to tend him.
The film, which the writer-director regards as a follow-up of sorts to her 2007 hit Stages, takes place in the run-up to Easter. "It's the dying and starting over again, the crucifixion of the ego, "Thomas speaks into his tape recorder, trying to explain just why he becomes so emotionally overwrought at this time of the year.
"As a child, the suffering of Jesus made a big impression on me. That Jesus was crucified for our sins I did not fully understand, but I thought it was beautiful that darkness and light, horror and joy succeeded each other. I also liked to make a film in this time in which the Protestant faith plays a role," is how the director reflects on the symbolism in the film.
Marcel Musters, who plays the brother, was in Stages as was Elsie De Brauw, who plays the sister trying to help Thomas sort out his life. Monic Hendrickx is the other sister, Hannah, who feels he should be left to "live his own life."
"I wanted to search all the big and small questions that face me and my friends and our generation in the world," the writer-director explains. She quickly decided that setting her story within a family and approaching the subject matter with plenty of humour was the wisest idea. Together with the actors she designed the characters.
De Jong shares some character traits of all of her three main protagonists. She understands the brother's sense of impotence and despair. "I see his mechanisms," she says but adds: "it's not that I feel burned out. I am not burned out at all." The director also empathises with the caring sister (De Brauw) and the other sibling, the fiercely independent and self-reliant photographer. "They love each other. They can't live with each other...and they can't live without each other," she describes a familiar family dynamic. De Jong comes from a big family and has four sisters and one brother herself. She recently held a private screening. To her delight, they loved it and recognised parts of themselves in the characters.
God Only Knows, supported by the Netherlands Film Fund, seems on the surface like a screwball comedy. Scrape beneath the surface, though, and you realise that De Jong is touching on profound and provocative questions about faith, belief, sacrifice and loyalty.
The project is much smaller than her previous feature, the epic drama Layla M. De Jong discarded traditional "shot reverse shot" film grammar. She uses handheld camera, split screen and shots of old letters written by the characters. "One of the assignments to myself was experimenting with form. In addition to the realistic form in which the brother and sisters show each other the worst of themselves, I want to show more: their past and the world nowadays. I chose a more abstract form here. In the split screen, I want the public to choose their point of view and in the others scenes we choose the focus."
The director relishes the prospect of screening the film for the first time at Rotterdam, her home town. "The festival was very important for my decision to go to film school and be a director...for me, it is the perfect place to premiere the film."
SEE NL Magazine #34 November 2019 / Sundance, IFFR, Berlin and Clermont Ferrand issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by Eye International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.