When the Consul of the Netherlands was introducing Stricken, his country’s selection on the eve of the European Union Film Fest’s final night, he said that it would be wrong to say too much about a film before watching it, but noted that this particular movie dealt with its subject matter with customary Dutch directness.
Well, we can’t say he didn’t warn us.
Stricken(2009), from director Reinout Oerlemans, is a movie about a man who has it all. Stijn van Diepens (Barry Atsma) is a successful advertising executive, with a beautiful, intelligent wife, Carmen (Carice Van Houten), a best friend, Frank (Jeroen Willems), more loyal than most, and a little daughter, Luna (Yfke Wegman), the light of his life.
He also has the occasional fling on the side, a predilection which his wife has come to accept as his bad habit. “Some men smoke, others cheat”, he notes in a voiceover near the beginning.
But it all begins to crumble when Carmen finds a lump in her left breast. The scene where their doctor tells them of their treatment options is slightly jarring in its stillness, because the scenes before that were a series of chaotic jumpcuts visually describing the carefree, hedonistic lifestyle they both enjoyed.
The interesting part of this movie is that you can see that despite his tendency to cheat, Stijn truly does love his wife, because when she begins her chemotherapy, he stays with her during the sessions. Carmen tells him it is sweet of him to want to be there with her, and he says in the voiceover that “want” wasn’t the right word; but that the only thing he wanted less was for her to go alone.
When her hair begins to fall out, they make a joke out of the whole affair. As Carmen sits in front of their bathroom mirror, Stijn standing with a pair of scissors behind her becomes “François”, her exaggeratedly-French hairstylist. When they introduce their bewildered three-year old daughter to the series of wigs her mother will be wearing, a blonde wig transforms Carmen into “Marilyn Monroe” – she is normally a brunette.
The editing is chaotic when it needs to be – such as the scenes where Stijn tries to lose himself in the frenzy of a danceclub, or in the heat of a fumbling tryst – and still when the mood calls for it, like the jarring cuts to Carmen vomiting after chemotherapy.
There is a scene where the use of parallel editing says much more than mere dialogue could have. The camera cuts between shots of Stijn striding down a back hallway of a nightclub, greeting familiar faces and kissing familiar women, while Carmen glides down a similar, but more starkly lit hallway towards her radiation therapy session. The camera slides across her body, showing the red laser scanning down her body and settling on her breast, and in the next shot Stijn is shown moving his mouth over the perfect breast of a scantily-clad woman in the bathroom of the danceclub. The score is brilliant, and apt. The song playing over the closing credits, “Love Over Healing” by Kane, sounds like it could have been written exclusively for this movie:
“Woman, come see me/ Woman, come see me now/ I didn’t mean it, Woman, come hear me out/ All that I seek is/ All that I seek is out/ Woman believe it, Woman come hear me now/…I didn’t know what to do/ I just want to stay close to you…”
It is no surprise after watching Stricken to find that it won awards at the Netherlands Film Festival 2010 for Best Film, and at the Rembrandt Awards 2010 for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Film Song.
The movie deals with difficult subject matters – cancer, and its effect not just on the patient but on their families and relationships. It looks squarely at the notion of assisted suicide. It tackles sex, sexuality, and the definition of being a woman when the things that define womanhood – hair, breasts – are gone; as well as the complicated nature of love. Stijn says early on, in a scene describing his indiscretions while on a business trip with Frank (who saves his bacon by retrieving Stijn’s wedding ring from the bottom of the hotel swimming pool), that the other women can have his body, but they can’t have his heart, only Carmen has his heart.
But when Rose comes along, everything changes.
Right around the time Carmen leaves for New York for a recovery vacation, after having surgery to remove her left breast, Rose (Anna Drijver) becomes Stijn’s “surrogate queen”. But more than any other flings, Rose becomes his obsession, his outlet for the fear, despair, and the desperate lust for life that Stijn finds himself chasing after the sicker Carmen becomes.
Stricken shows the downward spiral of a man trying to hold together everything he loves, in the face of warring, contradictory loyalties: Carmen, or Rose? Faithfulness or infidelity? The living, or the dying? Rose, or Luna his beloved daughter?
But the film also masterfully shows the capability and strength of human relationships. Too often we are shown what happens when love is put to the test – through disloyalty, or through huge, looming, uncontrollable circumstances. It often falls apart, leaving brokenness in its wake. But with Stricken, while you see a marriage on the edge of disintegration and a shared life falling apart, the filmmaker manages to inject humour into desperately sad moments, and the incredible acting of the three leading actors showcases the subtle nuances of emotion, as well as its dire extremes.
Joy co-exists with despair here, fear rides alongside humour, and desire courses through the same channels as the graphic depiction of pain, such as the burns inflicted by laser surgery to tackle the tumour in Carmen’s breast.
Through it all, a masterful directorial hand paired with brilliant editing and a beautiful score make this a film worth seeing at least once in your life.