Het Echte Leven

In 1957 Roger Corman wrote and directed The Undead in just under two weeks. Some movies take a bit longer to get finalized. Take Het Echte Leven (Dutch for The Real Life) for example, the latest Robert Jan Westdijk. The writer/director got the idea in 1997 and then it took him eleven years to turn it into a finalised movie.

Westdijk may not be the most prolific director in the world, yet his body of work deserves all the attention it can get. The main reason for that is his debut feature, Zusje (Little Sister). In Zusje a young man visits his sister for the first time in many years. As she opens the door, he films her actions on camera. He says he wants to look at her reactions, to make a film about her life. Her hostile attitude makes it evident something happened to the family years ago.
The most interesting point about the film is that Zusje is entirely shown from the brother’s point of view. He films her life and we get to see it the way he does. It’s a confronting film that launched the careers of the director as well as actress Kim van Kooten (who debuted this way).

That Zusje has become one of the most important films ever in the history of Dutch cinema didn’t make it easier for Westdijk. His second movie (Siberia) was intended as a caper, but never got as funny as it pretended to be. The director noticed this too: he gave his actors directions, but they only made the action seem less plausible. There was no spontaneity whatsoever in the film. This was where Westdijk’s idea for another movie originated.

Still, from embryonic idea to finalized movie… it can be a long path. Westdijk filled the gap by helming the film version of a Dutch book, Phileine zegt sorry (Phileine says sorry), a movie that may have reunited him with Kim van Kooten but isn’t vintage Westdijk.
Between his second and third movie was a gap of five years. After Phileine in 2003 it took the director another five years to finish a movie.

But this was the movie which started as an idea eleven years before. In Het Echte Leven Westdijk tried to answer his own question: what would happen if the spontaneity of the real life would mingle with the planned movie scripts? Westdijk achieves this by directing a movie about a movie.
Martin (played by Ramsey Nasr) is a young director, who’s shooting a movie starring his girlfriend Simone (Sallie Harmsen) and himself. In the movie Martin leaves Simone, so he can question the love between him and Simone in real life. Martin isn’t too happy with the love interest Simone gets in his movie and asks Dirk to take over. Dirk is a sound engineer who accidently ends up in the picture and gets the role thanks to being around, not looking too awful on screen and unattractive enough to pose no threat to the real relationship between Simone and Martin.
However, Dirk is not an actor and has trouble distinguishing between the actress Simone and the character she plays. Martin tries to confuse Dirk even more, hoping that Dirk’s inability to act gives the movie a more spontaneous look. Sadly, this only makes matters worse and everyone has a hard time trying to find out what is still real and what’s part of the movie.

I hope I haven’t confused you too much by this synopsis. My first idea was that this movie couldn’t be any good. What convinced me to watch it is the memory of Westdijk being able to bring unusual movie ideas to actually good movies. Zusje, as mentioned before, is one of the most important Dutch films ever and is so good because it forces you to watch the film from the brother’s point of view. The character’s story and the camera merge and become one. Het Echte Leven does the opposite: it constantly forces you to acknowledge you’re watching a movie. Westdijk’s talent makes you even question from time to time whether you’re watching Westdijk’s movie or Martin’s movie (the movie in the movie).

It may be unjust to compare Westdijk to Orson Welles, but bear with me as I’m trying to prove a point. Welles may have directed other excellent movies but the legacy of Citizen Kane is so enormous. The Magnificent Ambersons may be a very good film, but Citizen Kane, it isn’t.
In a way, you could say the same about Westdijk. Het Echte Leven may be the best Dutch film of 2008, but it can’t beat Zusje and there’s a big chance that no other of future films ever will. What movies like Citizen Kane and Zusje do is tell you a great director has arrived, with a voice so exceptional you’ll spot it most in that very first film. What later movies do is just show even more there’s a director with lots of talent and a unique voice, but it’s the same voice that gave life to all of the director’s films. Het Echte Leven will make you think of Zusje, even if you don’t want to.

I gave it my best shot and awarded this movie 8.5/10. I’m not sure if the movie would’ve received an 8 or a 9 if it had been directed by another director. Het Echte Leven isn’t perfect, but it’s quirky and has the ability to bring a smile to your face when you’re walking past your movies and get to the letter E (provided you archive your movies in alphabetical order).

By the way, Westdijk managed to get another stellar performance from a largely unknown actress: Sallie Harmsen has been around for a couple of years, but she’s perfect for this role and it may be the movie of her life.

It’s a shame Dutch cinema is so unpopular that only a miracle can bring a Dutch film to your local screen, but it’s out on DVD. This is a movie that should’ve deserved a cinema release, but there you go: some Hollywood popcorn fodder is playing there while Het Echte Leven debuts internationally on dvd.

The Region 2 dvd is presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen. The Dutch film is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and there are Dutch and English subtitles.
The extras have the trailer for Het Echte Leven and Zusje. There’s also a chance to go behind the scenes of the movie (22 minutes) and the auditions are also there. This helps you see how some scenes were created. As a final extra, you can also watch Martin’s film (the movie in the movie). Some of the scenes from Martin’s film never made it to Het Echte Leven, so you’re not just watching a repeat.

The dvd was released by A-Film and is cordially recommended.

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