Sunday, January 03, 2010

PSIFF10: BELGIAN CINEMA—Meisjes / The Over the Hill Band (2009)

Sid:"We'll be known as The Over the Hill Band. …Believe me, that's a real young-sounding name."

Claire: "When I look in the mirror, I wonder who the old bat is that I can see. Because underneath this old skin, I'm still 17. That's how I feel."

Meisjes (Dutch for "girlfriends"; "The Over the Hill Band" in English distribution) arrives for its U.S. premiere at the 2010 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) as a celebrated World Cinema Now Gala Screening, with director Geoffrey Enthoven expected to attend, along with actors Jan van Looveren, Marilou Mermans, and Lea Couzin. Along with My Queen Karo, Altiplano and The Misfortunates (Belgium's official submission to the Oscars® foreign language category), Meisjes rounds up a record-breaking quartet of Flemish productions featured this year at PSIFF.

Meisjes first played at the Montreal World Film Festival, had its international premiere at Germany's Internationales Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg (IFFMH), and won the Grand Prix Hydro-Québec at the 28th International Film Festival of Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

Recently-widowed septuagenarian Claire (in an anchoring performance by Marilou Mermans) seeks to redress issues with her two sons, which have lingered unresolved while her husband was alive. Though her son Michel (Lucas van den Eynde) is a successful businessman, her other son Alexander—who prefers to be called Sid (Jan van Looveren)—is a failed and frustrated musician who blames part of his failure on the lack of parental support, which he accuses all went to Michel. Admitting to herself that Sid was the child she loved most "in her gut", but that she had indeed paid more attention to Michel out of guilt-driven compensation to hide the fact, Claire elects to use the last of her economic resources and her remaining years to support Sid's musical quest; to finally grant him his long overdue share of affection. Recalling her teenage years singing in a band with her girlfriends Magda (Lea Couzin) and Lutgard (Lut Tomsin) as "The Sisters of Love", Claire strategizes that as backup singers they can help Sid form a band. She convinces Magda and Lutgard to come out of retirement and Sid reluctantly agrees to join his mother and her crazy friends because he needs the money. But he does set one condition … they will play his kind of music.

Hailed as a "sassy social comedy" in the tradition of last year's Moscow, Belgium and playing like a combination of Calendar Girls and Young at Heart, Variety reviewer Boyd van Hoeij nonetheless saddles the film with accusations of predictability and crowd pleasing, which raises the inevitable question: who are movies for? Especially at a film festival? Are they for the critics or the audiences? Or more accurately—since they are surely for both, as both have vested interests in the festival-event—whose reaction is most appropriate? Can that breach even be gauged? I'm reminded of that lyric in Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along where a producer protestingly sings: "What's wrong with letting them tap their toes a bit?!"

Critically, perhaps, there is always something wrong with predictability; but, audiences ain't critics and sometimes their anticipation of the mainstream offsets the erosive demands of the auteurial, especially at a film festival. As Maurie Alioff pegs it at Northernstars, Meisjes is mainstream fare, but also "the kind of movie festivalgoers embrace for its feel good vibe." Writing for the Montreal Gazette, John Griffin describes Meisjes as "funny, ribald, touching and inspirational comedy" and advises: "Take your pointers where you may, but this genuinely appealing tale does suggest that life is short. Live every day to the max." After receiving a standing ovation at the 28th International Film Festival of Abitibi-Témiscamingue, the jury lauded the film for its "clear style and ability to subtly narrate a serene view on death."

And so, yes, as much as I esteem my Variety colleague Boyd van Hoeij, I rabble with the crowd on this one and recommend this predictable crowdpleaser. One has to wonder how much guilty pleasure is enfolded within the predictable? From its opening sequence when Claire's husband chides her for humming to herself, I knew immediately that his demise was imminent and that his death was somehow going to be a good thing, relieving Claire of the repressive pressure of his attitude towards life so that she can finally rediscover hers. Wasn't it her husband after all who found no worth in her son Sid's musical ambitions? By recognizing their mutual love for music, Claire and Sid "grow predictably closer", but not without permutations both subtle and poignant.

Indeed, Meisjes contains more poignancy than von Hoeij gives it credit. The film effectively questions the traditional patterns of wives giving up their lives and dreams for their husbands. It stares unflinchingly at the encroaching sunset of old age and death. Watching Claire come to the realization of how she has unfairly treated her son Sid—and then observing how she gradually "loses her marbles" and experiences "butterflies in her head"—are heartfelt jewels within the narrative setting. The film's final ruffle-edged photographic image of The Sisters of Love in their youthful heyday serves as a wistful reminder of the fugacity of all human beings and how—to honor Blake—one must kiss the joy as it flies.

So, sure, just as von Hoeij complains, before you can say "predictable plot twist" the Sisters of Love are reinvented as the Over the Hill Band with a playlist that ranges from Eurohouse anthem "Pump Up the Jam" to a pimped-out version of Wallace Collection's "Daydream". It's a sure-fire set-up; but, I have to say I couldn't help but laugh watching these elderly women get back in touch with their inner vixen. The film's closing sequence is a thought-provoking blend between senile and cinematic fantasies, in line with Rob Marshall's trenchant staging of musical numbers as compensatory interiorized enactments.

Jan van Looveren negotiates a difficult arc from an initially wholly unattractive and unlikeable Sid to the kid you can't help but like. Lut Tomsin also deserves a shout-out as the crotchety youth choir-director who learns to get a buzz off the bass. In one especially hilarious sequence she drolly mouths the lyrics to sexually suggestive hiphop while filling her shopping basket with rap CDs. She has a touch of Lily Tomlin (who should surely play the role if there's a U.S. remake). And the mirthful, fun-spirited Lea Couzin earns a point for defending Jacques Brel as God. Look for a brief cameo appearance by Greg Timmermans as the funeral priest. Timmermans was last seen at PSIFF in the popular offering Ben X.

In summary, Meisjes is nothing new, but its predictability is precisely what constitutes its fun. My only concern is that the senior demographic at Palm Springs might become a bit unruly after watching this film. Juniors beware!

[Disclaimer: Reviewed from screener.]

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