Boston Review
table of contents
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
rave reviews
writers’ guidelines
bookstore locator
literary links


Search this site or the web Powered by FreeFind

Site Web

For other film reviews by Alan Stone, click here.

A Second Nature

Antonia's Line reimagines life, after patriarchy.

Alan A. Stone

"I am a feminist, both by temperament and intellect, and my films are shaped by my outlook on life." Those are the words of Dutch film-maker Marleen Gorris, who wrote and directed Antonia's Line, winner of this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Gorris's "outlook on life" as a radical lesbian feminist has gotten more attention from the major media than her astonishingly beautiful film. It is now well chronicled that she began her film-making career as a writer who took a screenplay to Belgian experimental director Chantal Ackerman and tried to convince her to make it into a movie. Ackerman in turn challenged Gorris to live her feminist politics by filming her own screenplays (and encouraged her by confiding that "directing isn't that difficult"). Rising to the challenge, Gorris made two feminist manifestos.

The screenplay Gorris had offered Ackerman became A Question of Silence (1982). Three women who are strangers to each other go berserk and kill the male proprietor of a dress shop whose chauvinistic behavior in stopping one of them for shoplifting unleashes their repressed rage. Put on trial, their lawyer argues that they were not responsible, but instead victims reacting to centuries of humiliation and physical violation that have scarred the collective unconscious of every woman.

This parable of justified rage put Gorris in the forefront of radical feminism, a position she consolidated with Broken Mirrors (1984), a savage depiction of male brutality to women which combined scenes from a brothel and from the cellar of a serial killer, who is photographing a female victim as she starves to death. Together, these man-hating jeremiads earned Gorris a reputation as "the apotheosis of angry militant Eurofeminism."

For nearly a decade, that reputation appeared to have been a marginalizing curse to the promising film-maker. She disappeared into the Eurofeminist underground; and although she continued to work, her career as a creative writer-director seemed dead.

But Gorris, though missing, was far from dead; she had completed the screenplay for Antonia's Line in 1988 and spent years trying to get backing to launch the project. Finally, with help from Hans de Weers, she put together a consortium of investors, and teamed up with British producer Judy Counihan. Counihan had started in television commercials, moved to the aptly named Red Hot Organization in New York where she made commercials for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, and then jumped into cinema as co-producer of Before the Rain, a critically-acclaimed Macedonian British film that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. The very next year, with Counihan on board, Antonia's Line captured the Oscar, and a piece of the lucrative American market coveted by European investors. Instead of rejoicing over this brilliant film and its deserved success, both Gorris and Counihan seem to be slightly worried that their radical feminist constituency will feel they have sold out. In a striking demonstration of feminist solidarity, only women were allowed to attend the premiere of Antonia's Line at the Cannes Film Festival. Gorris's public statements about the film have, in contrast, disingenuously tried to draw a line between her art and her politics: "I don't put political or moral lessons in my films." Nothing could be further from the truth; indeed the writer-director's "lessons" -- an affirmative moral vision rooted in her feminism -- help make Antonia's Line a memorable film with intellectual depth as well as shimmer and sparkle. Counihan concedes that the two early Gorris films were uncompromising, much harder, and more didactic. They deeply influenced her own career and she admits, "People who know Marleen's work will be surprised at the change. Women are allowed to change. This is a mellower side to Marleen." But, addressing feminist critics with the deft touch of a well-trained spin doctor, she adds: "It's in no way a compromise of her politics. It's feminism for the '90s."

All this spin is unlikely to mollify radical feminists who considered Gorris one of their own. Her early films were guerrilla warfare: Men were the enemy and women took no prisoners. But Antonia's Line imagines a truce in the gender war. Drafted if not dictated by women, the terms of the truce grow from a simple premise: that women must create their own identity, that they are not to be defined "through their roles as wife, mother, or daughter."

Antonia's Line is about the new world created by that truce, and the life, family, and community women will have in that world. After patriarchy is dethroned and the war is over, how will women build families? How will they live, and how will they die? Gorris's answer presumes that patriarchy has been the main obstacle to human freedom, dignity, and fun, and that men can only be accepted into this new world if they are willing to accept the matriarchal terms of the truce.

Gorris calls her film "a fairy tale": an ironic comment on the possibility of women actually achieving such independence, but an accurate description of the aesthetic method of this imaginative and touching film. Transcending the bleak anger of her earlier films of feminist rage, Gorris has discovered in herself a sense of humor and used it to explore the whole gamut of human emotion. We commonly think of emotions as a customary array of reactions to our lived experience. Since William James, philosopher-scientists have encouraged this limiting view by tying emotions to basic physiological responses; and Freud's critics scoffed at his elaborate theory of repressed emotions by arguing that, when it comes to emotions, you either have them or you don't. This simplistic on-off switch picture does not begin to explain the complex range of feelings in human experience. Every introspective human being knows that emotions come in unlikely mixtures and surprising oppositions: that feelings of depression often lurk behind our anger, that tears unexpectedly accompany laughter. Emotion is the music of life, and, in its portrayals and provocations, Antonia's Line is a marvelous demonstration of the subtlety, complexity, and surprise of unfamiliar emotions. Any film can play on an audience's emotions, that is Hollywood's specialty; only a great film like Antonia's Line reveals a new way to live, with its new and different music.

Gorris's film makes use of a narrator who introduces and tells a small part of her story. This device puts emotional distance between the viewer and the raw experience portrayed in the film, and Gorris works that distance to marvelous effect. The narrator, whom we will eventually discover is Antonia's great-granddaughter, matter-of-factly informs us that Antonia (Willeke Van Ammelrooy), now an aging great-grandmother, knows even before she gets out of bed that this will be the last day of her life. There will be no explanation of how this knowledge came to her, why or how she will die. But her death is presented to us as neither a frightening premonition of the end nor an act of suicide, but as a kind of human magic that strips death of its awesome power over us. This simple, nuanced, and profound beginning sets the stage for an adult fairy tale about a world in which people live and die, and women have mysterious powers. Antonia will call her loved ones to her side; and most important of all, her little great-granddaughter who is fascinated by death is to be given this precious opportunity to watch. Strange to say this film is as much about death as it is about life. But we are initially kept at a safe distance from death because Gorris wants us to recognize Antonia's philosophical acceptance and not just bathe in empathy.

Antonia, weighed down but still handsome and unbowed by age, starts her last day with familiar morning routines: opening the shutters, feeding the goat. Then, as she looks out the kitchen window, her memory flashes back to the end of World War II; Antonia and her teenage daughter Danielle (Els Dottermans) are returning to the Dutch village where Antonia was born, to claim the farm she has inherited. They enter the bedroom of her supposedly dead mother who, surprisingly, is still alive and still cursing her unfaithful "shit bag" of a husband who died 30 years earlier. The mother, like others in this film, is a creature out of Breughl. Bouncing on her deathbed, she refuses to die quietly. Her final words when she recognizes Antonia are, "Late as usual." Antonia and her daughter are more curious and amused than sad.

Gorris scripted and directed the mother's death scene for laughs with the priest as the straight man. At the church service, the dead mother suddenly sits up in her coffin and surreally bursts into "My Blue Heaven." The director's camera makes us realize that this scene takes place only in the mind's eye of Danielle, whose creative fantasies add a seeming note of magic realism to the film. In keeping with the mood and the affirmative feminine principle of the film, Danielle sees the tortured Christ on the cross -- the male principle -- turn his head and smile benevolently on the proceedings.

Running through Antonia's Line is a conflict between these two principles. According to the male principle -- which rejects life as a source of unending misery, with death the only escape -- man can suffer all his life because he is preoccupied with death and the meaning of life; according to the life-affirming female principle, a child can thrive on her curiosity about death and a woman can enjoy living because she does not expect life to reveal its meaning. Gorris conveys these ideas not through an argument, but in the development of the characters: Antonia, who founds the new line of women, and accepts the cycle of life and death because she accepts nature in all its plenitude; Crooked Finger (Mil Seghers), a recluse with a house full of books and a mind crammed with learning, all apparently poisoned by melancholy. Antonia is the earth-mother who absorbs and dispenses the not-so-simple wisdom of nature as she works her farm until she dies. Crooked Finger is a tortured Schopenhauerian character who, having absorbed all the scientific male wisdom of western civilization, is finally driven to suicide. Antonia and Crooked Finger have no biographical past to ground them for us. They cannot be understood in "realistic" psychological terms but that mystery of their past adds to rather than detracts from their development as characters.

Gorris's film is Mozartian in its beauty -- so artfully made that we are carried along by the surprising flow of the narrative without being forced to recognize the intellectual daring and craft of the film-maker. No film in recent memory is at once so rich in ideas and so intellectually unpretentious.
Antonia's daughter Danielle is first seen as a dark-haired, nondescript teenager in a shapeless dress. Her wish-fulfilling imagination prefigures her talent. She will be an artist; and Antonia unpossessively sends her off to art school: Bonds between women are important to Gorris but they do not constitute identity. Danielle returns an artist but still unfulfilled. She wants a child, though like her mother Antonia she has no use for a husband. Antonia who can solve any natural problem takes her to the city, and by a happy mistake, to a home for unwed mothers. At the home they meet Letta, hugely pregnant, a vivacious woman who does not necessarily like getting pregnant or having children, but unabashedly loves being pregnant and giving birth. She is defined not by her role of wife or mother but by the fructified state of pregnancy. Delighted to help Antonia and Danielle fulfill their mission, she introduces Danielle to one of her male relatives.

Danielle is a demanding lover, wanting more not because of sexual passion but because of her passionate wish to be impregnated. When the willing but finally exhausted young man falls asleep, we see Danielle standing on her head as she helps the sperm on its way. She is fully naked and the camera reveals for the first time that she is a woman with a beautiful body. Back in her shapeless dress she gaily runs from the hotel to join her mother and Letta who have been waiting patiently during the romantic interlude. The women are conspiratorial in their mischievous joy -- the man has been used in this affair, though without mean spirit. We can believe he feels like Don Juan, not one of his victims. Having stood her naked actress and the conventional sexual escapade on their heads, Gorris has presented first death and now sex in imaginative ways that surprise and delight her audience; and she does it with dazzling ingenuity, thumbing her nose at the traditional sacred patriarchal role of father and the institutions that legitimate and illegitimate children.

Danielle gives birth to a girl, Therese, who is soon revealed to be an intellectual prodigy. Her school teacher Lara shows up to discuss this prodigy's education. Danielle takes one look at Lara -- long-haired, blond, and as unglamorous as Danielle -- and in her mind's eye sees, as we do, Botticelli's Venus on the half-shell; it is love at first sight. Gorris presents their love with impeccable taste and judgment, neither in-your-face nor apologetic. The women are neither carefully platonic nor swooning over each other: simply a young couple "naturally" falling in love with each other. Gorris knows that we cannot hold a mirror up to "nature," that "nature" is itself a human invention; but Antonia's Line is her fairy tale and this scene, and indeed the entire film, comes close to a convincing realization of naturalness. There is a feminist, perhaps lesbian agenda in this portrayal of love at first sight. But Gorris's art, with its reassuring good humor, transforms her political concerns into a moral project, lifting the film and her audience to a new acceptance and understanding of difference.

Though Crooked Finger embodies the male principle, he is not the only man in this film. Some are left over from the gender wars of Broken Mirrors, and there is one unforgiving example of patriarchy: a father matched by two brutal sons, a silenced wife, and a half-wit daughter DeeDee. DeeDee is treated like an animal by the men in her family and raped by her older brother. Antonia's daughter, who has gone to their farm to fetch a saw, catches the brother Pitte (Filip Peeters) in the act. As Pitte backs away from his ravaged sister's hindquarters, Danielle impulsively picks up and throws a pitchfork, skewering him just where you might expect. Pitte will disappear from the village wounded, though (unfortunately) not permanently incapacitated, with his hatred of women as intact as his evil nature. Danielle takes the rape victim back to Antonia's farmhouse where she is installed in a growing community. Antonia has already saved the village idiot Loony Lips (Jan Steen) from the torment of nasty little boys; and he, another creature out of Breughl, has followed her faithfully thereafter. He and DeeDee ("like finds like") become a devoted couple. Antonia's dinner table further expands as the village priest, whose joy for life cannot be contained within a clerical collar, moves in, soon to be joined by Letta of the pregnancy project. Recruited by Letta, the defrocked priest finally has a true calling -- producing his own 12 apostles. In this allegory about the twisting authority of culture versus the liberating power of nature, Gorris makes us value the eccentrics even as she spurns the patriarchal institutions that caused their eccentricities.

Antonia, the great matriarch, presides over her happy commune enjoying the rhythms of the seasons and majestically sowing her seeds. This handsome woman is not without male suitors, notably Bas (Jan Decleir), a widower with a string of obedient sons who follow him like ducklings after a duck. In yet another ingenious reversal of "gender politics," Bas -- a good and simple man -- proposes to Antonia, explaining that his sons need a mother. Antonia, without cruelty but with that look of mischief in her eye we have come to recognize, tells him that she has no need for his sons. But if Antonia does not need a man, Bas seems to need Antonia. So farmer Bas and his obedient sons loyally attend Antonia, helping with the chores, until she finally tires of her self-imposed chastity. Prepared to offer Bas everything except her hand, she dictates the terms of their new relationship: They are too old to impose their relationship on their families, and at their age once a week will be sufficient (though they agree to negotiate should a need for greater frequency arise). Bas builds a little hut in the countryside and in a charming scene, carries Antonia over the threshold.

Soon love-making breaks out all over: Danielle and the school teacher sacredly beautiful in their female nakedness; the buxom, middle-aged Antonia, cavorting in the arms of her faithful Bas; DeeDee and Loony Lips, an incongruous copulating pair, she a butterball and he a string bean stretched out over her; and Letta riding her defrocked priest who chortles with a joy he never felt in the pulpit. The ardor of these couples grows until they are all making so much noise that the young prodigy, Danielle's daughter Therese, cannot sleep.

Into this Eden of innocent women and natural joy comes the serpent Pitte, a Satan who returns after many years to rape Therese, revenging himself on the child of Danielle. While DeeDee consoles the young prodigy, Antonia takes up a rifle and tracks Pitte down in a bar. Unable to bring herself to kill him, she puts her curse on him; and in that awesome moment, one has no doubt that Antonia's curse has the awful woman's power the misogynist Dominican fathers feared when they wrote the Maleus Malefecarum. Pitte is cruelly beaten by the other young men who discover what he has done and kicked spectacularly in the groin. When he staggers home looking for help he is drowned by his own brother who hates him and wants to inherit the farm.

The narrator tells us that the proverb is not true: Time does not heal all things. The precious child prodigy Therese has been forever scarred by the rape. In this Eden, rape is the primal sin, hardening the heart against love.

Therese has been tutored by Crooked Finger who, despite his bitterness, loves this girl and has shared his learning with her. She loves him -- the way girls have always loved a father who teaches them -- in a relationship that Gorris allows to undercut the primary bonds between women that form the structure of Antonia's Line. Indeed, she is incapable of loving anyone but him. Letta's oldest son Simon has worshipped her from childhood; and she finally becomes pregnant by him. Although she does not love Simon, she decides to have the baby -- a girl, of course -- the great-granddaughter of Antonia whose gift is to be fascinated with death. But Therese has no maternal love for her child. She hands the newborn Sarah to her husband and turns back to her mathematics book. Simon the father will mother Antonia's great-granddaughter.

As new life comes, so comes death, sudden, surprising, but matter-of-fact and even humorous as we have come to expect. But then Crooked Finger hangs himself and it is quite a different matter. Gorris leaves us no emotional distance; Therese is heartbroken, and as Crooked Finger's body is cut down, little Sarah, peering through the window, takes in the whole catastrophe, studying death and these reactions to it.

One day as Antonia and Bas, now showing their age, get up from the dinner table to dance, we see that little Sarah has Danielle's gift. She imagines in her mind's eye that the dead have returned to life, and that Antonia and Bas are as young as when they first met. Antonia has already told us that life is the only dance we dance, but Gorris reassures us that Antonia's line will go on dancing in her granddaughter's creative mind.

The earth mother, the painter, the intellectual prodigy, and the little student of death who tells the story: Each has created a human identity. And that creativity is the hope of Antonia's Line. However it comes out for them, Gorris herself has done what only a great film artist can do: created another world, with possibilities we might otherwise have found inconceivable, and a naturalness we might otherwise have found unimaginable.

Originally published in the Summer 1996 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |