Alex van Warmerdam is a Dutch author of movies and plays. So far he made the movies Abel, De Noorderlingen (The Northerners), De Jurk (The Dress), Kleine Teun (Little Tony) and Grimm. Most people who aren’t from Holland mainly know him of De Noorderlingen or De Jurk.
He’s a highly original director and the good news is: he’s back with a new movie and it’s called Ober. ‘Ober’ is Dutch for ‘waiter’, the profession of Edgar. The restaurant Edgar works in hasn’t heard of hygiene or hospitality. Edgar is a middle aged man, who works in a restaurant, who has his mistress Victoria come over on Tuesdays and when the restaurant closes for the night and Edgar and his mistress have had their quickie, Edgar returns home to his sick wife.
Boring story? Edgar thinks so too and knocks at the door of the screenplay writer. When the author goes to the toilet his girlfriend uses the chance to change Edgar’s life: out go the sick wife and her bed, the mistress gets the news the affair is off and Edgar gets what he wants: a short affair with a younger woman, even if – so he’s told by his creator – things will get quite bad if Edgar desperately wants another girlfriend…
And things get worse indeed…
Enter a hard to explain story where Edgar goes from one bad experience into a worse one: his new mistress leaving him, abusive customers, being oppressed by Russian maffiosi living next door, his new mistress turning out to be his colleague’s wife, being forced by the maffiosi to hide a Japanese assassin… and those are just some of the easier plot developments.
In an attempt to make the affair between Edgar and Victoria more exciting, the writer’s girlfriend forces him to add saucier scenes. Not happy with going for direct sex scenes, the writer invents a fantasy where Victoria pretends to be a jungle girl and Edgar pretends to be a hunter, always followed by four hardly-clad negroes (who then keep turning up at Victoria’s doorstep every time Edgar and Victoria meet).
If you hadn’t guessed it already, Ober is a pretty absurd movie. Whilst reviewing this, I’ve started to think of Charlie Kaufman’s scripts, but I didn’t have to think of him when I was watching the movie. Names that did pop up were Aki Kaurismäki (the desolation of the main character is closely akin to the protagonists Kaurismäki is so fond of) and Takeshi Kitano (especially the scenes with the hiding Japanse killer).
The scenes where Edgar invades his author’s privacy were not as far-fetched and hard to swallow as I’d imagined. In fact, they’re not just fights between an author and his protagonist, but also reflect on the human condition and the sad miserable bastards that people like Edgar are. While you can’t call Edgar a cheery character – he hardly smiles and isn’t the best partner for his wife or indeed mistress – so many bad things happen that you can’t help but feel sympathy for him. For a character that’s invented for a screen and especially a character which is aware it’s being invented, Edgar is a surprisingly round character.
People who saw De Noorderlingen know that van Warmerdam is a master in choosing adequate sets and settings and Ober is just further proof of that. He also knows how to play for comic effect: the scene in the pawn shop is a great example of that. Edgar is served by a very old person who has trouble wrapping up the gift. The scene is long enough to get annoying and then keeps going on and on until it reaches highly comical levels.
Ober isn’t a crowd pleaser: its murky character and absurd plot twists aren’t going to go down well with everybody. Van Warmerdam amuses and annoys, but always to the benefit of the movie. My biggest criticism is that a few plot lines are stretched to such an absurd level that you’re demanding too much of your suspension of disbelief. Then again, Ober – whilst being a good example of la condition humaine – doesn’t try to be lifelike. It’s out there on its own cloud, on a league of its own…
We had to wait three years for a new van Warmerdam movie, but it was worth the wait. Ober is a movie you’ll probably need to go to a film festival for, but you won’t regret it. I didn’t get a chance to slide this somewhere inside my review, so I’ll end on a very positive note: some of the dialogue is highly quotable.
(originally reviewed for DV: Feb 2007)