Mike van Diem’s Character (1997) proves that there’s more to Dutch cinema than Paul Verhoeven. It also inadvertently poses the question of just why van Diem—after nabbing the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film—has not been able to parlay the success of Character into any kind of subsequent film career. (A vague credit for “writing services” on the 2001 thriller Spy Games is an odd single accomplishment for the man who wrote and directed this frequently amazing debut feature.) Perhaps the singular vision presented in Character has proved off-putting to producers.
The movie can hardly be called a crowd-pleaser and is certainly not the sort of film Hollywood is likely to want to emulate. Based on a highly regarded Dutch novel by Ferdinand Bordewijk, it’s the kind of densely layered, heavily literary work generally eschewed by the movies. (Actually, it’s rare these days to find literary adaptations that aren’t drawn from whatever flavor-of-the-week pop book was in at the time the deal was inked.) The storyline is both rather grim and unusual. It follows the fortunes of a young man, J.W. Katadreutte (Fedja van Huêt), who is the product of an ill-fated romance between a cold, callous businessman and bailiff, Dreverhaven (Jan Decleir), and a stubborn woman, Joba (Betty Schuurman, Twin Sisters). The thrust of the story lies in Joba’s persistent refusal to marry Dreverhaven and Dreverhaven’s perverse attempts to either destroy his son or “make a man of him” by manipulatively stacking the deck against him at every turn.
As a twisted story of “father love,” it’s a very odd work, and despite a proliferation of characters, a mystery-thriller structure, and even a kind of romance for the young man, the father-son story is very much at the center of the film. It’s not your average movie on the topic, but then it’s not your average movie in general. Character is a darkly compelling, invariably fascinating story that pokes into areas of the human spirit that are usually left alone. It’s also a remarkably stylish, well-crafted film that constantly surprises on the level of cinematic creativity alone. (Ironically, some of the film’s detractors dislike the film based entirely on the fact that it’s too creatively made—a criticism that ranks high on the incomprehensible scale, even among film snobs.)