The Adulterer (Series 1: 2011)

Since the action in the Dutch series, The Adulterer is sparked by an extramarital affair, it’s easy to see how the series acquired its name. While the title evokes racy images, adultery is just one aspect of this complex crime series. The alternate, much more appropriate title is Betrayal or Overspel. 

Attractive magazine photographer Iris van Erkel-Hoegaarde (Sylvia Hoeks) is married to public prosecutor Pepijn van Erkel (Ramsey Nasr), and they have a young son together. Although both husband and wife have good careers and a lovely home, we know almost immediately that something is wrong in their marriage. Perhaps it’s Iris’s complete inertia during sex, or perhaps it’s her ability to tune out? Whatever it is, Pepijn, who appears to be a milquetoast, seems blissfully unaware that his mis-matched wife is completely disinterested in him.

At a show of Iris’s photographs, she meets married lawyer Willem Steenhouwer (Fedja van Huêt) the son-in-law of the criminal real estate magnate Huub Couwenberg (Kees Prins), and sparks fly.

Willem is married to Couwenberg’s daughter, Elsie (Rifka Lodeizen). Elsie is so busy running her barely-staying afloat restaurant, that she’s also unaware that her family is falling apart. Not only does Willem begin an affair with Iris, but Elsie and Willem’s twin teenagers Marco (Jeffrey Hamilton) and Marit (Sirid ten Napel) begin dealing with crises of their own when Marco brutally attacks one of Marit’s friends.

The various worlds of the inter-connected characters are fascinating. Huub Couwenberg and his brain-damaged son, Bjorn (Guido Pollemans), live together in mal-adjusted domesticity, and while Bjorn leads a privileged, somewhat sheltered life listening to rock music, playing violent video games and visiting the local brothel, he tries hard to please his father, too hard as the series shows. Huub alternates between explosive anger and affection for the son who frustrates him: a child in a man’s body.

Then there’s Elsie and Willem who lead separate lives with discontented teenagers thrown into the mix. Marit wants to talk about the criminal activities of the family and Marco wants to emulate his grandfather.

But arguably the most chilling aspect of family life is seen in the home of Iris and Pepijn van Erkel. He seems so harmless–with an almost Danny Kaye harmless, buffoonishness to him, but look closely. He’s all over Iris at her exhibition, and then lets her know when he’s waiting, in bed, for sex.

Soon adultery is at the heart of a web of deceit, lies and murder, and the characters who were at one point, divided into the good/bad categories become shades of grey as loyalties clash and various agendas emerge.

There are a few false cliff-hanging moments but certainly not enough to mar this well-acted, addictive series.

In Dutch with subtitles

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Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great (2014)

For fans of Russian history or for those who love a good biopic, then don’t miss the 10-part Russian miniseries:  Ekaterina: The Rise of Catherine the Great. The series opens with a sixteen-year-old Frederica (Marina Aleksandrova) travelling to Russia along with her mother, Princess Johanna (Isabel Schosnig). Frederica is to marry the heir to the Russian throne Pyotr (Aleksandr Yatsenko), the nephew of Empress Elizabeth. For this impoverished German family, this is a match that must work, and the family’s survival rests upon it. In the eyes of Frederica and her mother, marriage to the heir seems to be a done deal, but scenes with Empress Elizabeth (Yuliya Aug) and her advisers show otherwise. Plus there are those intent on stopping the heir’s marriage to a minor German princess.

XiveTV EkaterinaFrom the beginning of this miniseries, character is emphasized, and while Elizabeth is, undeniably, an incredibly strong-willed woman, she’s met her match in Frederica, whose name is rapidly changed to Ekaterina. Many in the court are only too happy to disrupt the match between Ekaterina and Pyotr, but Ekaterina’s determination to prevail and to adopt Russian culture and religion win the day. Plus, there’s the definite sense that Ekaterina knows this is a waiting game…. and wait she does.

I’ve seen the Marlene Dietrich version of Catherine the Great, which I loved incidentally, but historically it had its flaws. Pyotr in that film was portrayed as a lunatic, but in Ekaterina, Pyotr is seen as damaged, possibly because of his many social constraints and also because he knows that once he’s produced an heir, he may well suffer the same fate as Ivan VI, who is imprisoned and going mad.

We see some of the scheming behind the throne and the intrigue rife in the German and and Russian Courts (where walls have ears). Also we see how Ekaterina begins to emerge from her role of submissive wife and subject and seeks love through various affairs. The characters of Elizabeth and Ekaterina bookend this marvellous biopic series as these two women battle it out: one powerful woman in decline and the other ascending.  At the moment, this mini-series is free on Amazon prime.

Ekaterina is a marvellous spectacle, a delight for the eyes. Looking forward to series 2.

 

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Black Widow (Penoza)

Not to be confused with the Swedish series Black Widows, the Dutch export Black Widow (singular) is a look at Amsterdam’s criminal underworld through the life of Carmen van Walraven. When series 1 opens, Carmen (Monic Hendrickx) is married to Frans (Thomas Acda) and they have three children together: Natalie (Sigrid ten Napel), Lucien (Niels Gompert) and Boris (Stijn Taverne). Carmen is one of three siblings with younger brother, Irwan de Rue (Fedja)) and sister Marleen (Maartje Remmers).

Black widow

When the series opens, Frans who is, according to his wife, a dealer in hash, becomes involved with the heavy world of cocaine trafficking when business partner Irwan rips off a shipment belonging to Belgian Schiller (Filip Peeters).

Soon Irwan, Frans and the third partner  of the “shop,” volatile Steven (Marcel Hensema), are up to their eyes in trouble. When things turn ugly, Carmen tells Frans that she wants him to leave the Life or she wants a divorce.

All this comes on top on younger sister Marleen’s wedding–an event which causes no small amount of turmoil in the family. Carmen’s mother, the very sour faced Fiep (Olga Zuiderhock) refuses to attend if father André (Tom Jansen) brings along his latest ditzy mistress. We get the first glimpse of Carmen’s strategic thinking when she manipulates the situation in her favour.

Of course, as we all know, noone leaves the life, or if they do, it’s either through the witness protection programme or in a wooden box. All hell breaks loose when Frans, pressured by Carmen tries to leave his criminal life (along with their fantastic waterside home).

To say too much more about the plot of this fantastic crime series would potentially spoil it for other viewers, so instead I’ll say that the plot shows the thorny path to acceptance of violence, and this is shown so well in the character of Carmen, who finds herself doing things she has no taste for, and yet she shows a great deal of skill in strategic planning, leadership and intimidation.

On one level, Carmen is a mother trying to ‘save’ her children, and yet by ensuring their safety, she creates a moral abyss which surrounds the lives of her children, and we see how each of the three children must find their way through a world of corruption and death. Yes, they are privileged: doors open for them, and yet it all comes with a cost. There’s also danger, as we see as the series progresses in not telling them some of the salient details of what she’s up to, so it’s a dilemma: should she tell them the truth to protect them from potential dangers or does the truth present moral difficulties which she will have to explain?

I can’t finish this post without mentioning the friendships Carmen maintains with two women: Hanneke (Peggy Jane de Schepper) and Sandrina (Medina Schurrman)–a woman who, as the series progresses, shows a history of poor choices in men. These friendships are tested when loyalties shift.

There’s also “Baldy,” or Berry (Loek Peters), a criminal whose role (and loyalties) shift throughout the series, but in spite of the many questionable things he does, there’s still, at the heart of this character, a sort of tarnished chivalry towards woman. It’s this facet of his character which makes him so interesting to follow. There’s also faithful henchman Luther (Raymond Thiry) and finally there’s the dogged, underappreciated policeman Jim Leeflang (Hajo Bruins). The plot plays with his motives at many times. He plants himself outside of Carmen’s house 24-7 but what is he driven by: attraction or at the desire to stick this woman behind bars.? Carmen is seen as a desirable woman who gains the respect of everyone who deals with her (well almost everyone).

As the series continue, you can’t help but get involved with the characters. The plot wobbles a bit at times, but overall, this is great entertainment, and Carmen’s mother Fiep remains one of my favourite characters.  I’ve watched series 1-5 so far and there’s another on the way. In N. America, this is available on Walter Presents. 

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Roberto Succo (2001)

You can’t predict crazy

The film Roberto Succo from director Cédric Kahn, based on a true story, takes a hard cold look at the crime spree of an escaped Italian mental patient. Roberto Succo slaughtered his parents and was sent to a psychiatric hospital for a ten year sentence. He escaped, traveled to France and then embarked on a life of crime: stealing cars, and committing rape and murder along the way.

When the film opens a wild-eyed Roberto (Stefano Cassetti) who calls himself ‘Kurt,’ meets 16-year-old schoolgirl Léa (Isild le Besco), who’s on holiday in Southern France, at a seaside disco. He drives a flashy car, has wads of cash, is full of glamorous tales of his exploits, and Lea gets caught up in the drama of their romance. Kurt claims to be English, yet his accent seems Italian to Léa. There’s no sex between them-just some groping and the odd dry hump,  and when she returns home to the Savoy Mountains, he promises to see her again.

roberto succo

The film is largely episodic, and at times the narrative picks up as Roberto commits another crime or drops back into Léa’s life. In one scene, the police respond to a missing person’s report, and it’s at this point that police detective Thomas, (Patrick Dell’Isola) begins to piece together that a series of seemingly random crimes have been committed by the same individual who’s running amok across France.

After speaking to a few witnesses and putting together a crime spree map, Thomas concludes, correctly as it turns out, that they are dealing with a madman. Unfortunately Thomas’s superior doesn’t think the case is that serious….

While some of the film follows the dogged investigation, when scenes switch to Roberto, the tempo changes dramatically.  His victims will be leading their normal routines when suddenly Roberto bursts into their lives with his erratic, manic behaviour. Whether he’s ranting about endocrinology, Stendhal or Marxism, he’s clearly terrifying insane. Some of his victims are able to play cool while others aren’t so fortunate. In terms of violence, we see a post slaughter scene and photos of a slaughter scene. Not too gruesome in its distance but certainly dire enough to place a heavy weight on the narrative. The most terrifying aspect of the story has to be the sheer randomness of his attacks.

Meanwhile as the police dig for clues, Robert visits Léa. They have a relationship of sorts with him spinning various versions of himself and Léa either largely swallowing or deciding to ignore the glaring inconsistencies in his tales.

Roberto is clearly a fantasist and the film shows that well. At times he brags he’s a terrorist, a Marxist, and when given attention he’s caught in the moment as he spews out various elaborate, grandiose versions of his life. Stefano Cassetti delivers a convincing performance as the mercurial madman who doesn’t seem to have a goal other than ‘freedom.’ His victims exist to help him achieve that careening, elusive ideal. Towards the end of the film, he rants his insane version of the fate of one of his victims, and while we know his version is twisted, the horrifying fate of the victim haunts the scene.

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Luz Casal

High Heels

 

Luz Casal sings two of my favourite songs from High Heels, an Almodovar film

 

Luz Casal

Piensa en Mí

 

WOW!

 Un año De Amor. (with scenes from the film)

(Sorry about the ads on the videos)

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The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

I can think of quite a few films that deal with the subject of leading a secret homosexual life, but not so many that deal with the problems facing lesbians. BBC’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister is based on a real life woman (1791-1840), a young Yorkshire woman living with her uncle and aunt at Shibden Hall when the film begins. Anne (Maxine Peake) is often in the company of lovers and friends Mariana (Anna Madeley) and Isabella ‘Tib” (Susan Lynch) and the three young women enjoy a great deal of freedom in each other’s company. This all comes to a screeching halt when Mariana is married off to elderly widower Charles Lawton (Michael Culkin). Up to this point, Mr Lawton’s presence, and his obvious hunt for the next Mrs Lawton, have provided the raw material for jokes.

Anne is heart broken and begs her lover Mariana to call off the marriage, but Mariana, who clearly knows what society expects of her, refuses. Anne wears black to the wedding, and afterwards tries to move on to a new love. Tib tries to console Anne, but the spark isn’t there.

Years pass and a few communications pass between Anne and Mariana. They swear a solemn vow to be true to each other, and Mariana assures Anne that her elderly husband is inching, daily, towards the grave. Meanwhile Anne, capable of great sexual passion, records her loneliness in coded diaries. She longs to share her life with the woman she loves and seeing Mariana under various pretenses just isn’t enough.

Set against the beautiful countryside of Anne’s home, we see how Anne progresses through her life. While Mariana calls Anne, “Freddy,” she also has the nickname of “Gentleman Jack,” and after Anne refuses to marry a local landowner, his spite makes sure that the rumours spread.

Anne, Tib and Mariana are allowed quite a bit of freedom, which included sharing beds with one another. But all this was approved of in the context that these young ladies were doing exactly what society expected them to do–and that included taking the husbands arranged for them and ‘doing their duty.’ (Sex and children). There are clues that some people were quite aware of Anne’s sexual orientation, but either chose to ignore it or else they imagined that it would pass once she found a suitable husband.

It’s interesting to note that no-one is suspicious of the sexual orientation of Anne’s aunt and uncle. The uncle is a substantial landowner, but there’s no mention of a wife, and of course the sister acts as a housekeeper. But they are passed the age of sexual queries. They may both be gay for all we know, but it no longer seems to matter to society. Also of note in that while the mingling of the single sexes was monitored and scrutinized by polite society, two or three girls alone together was …. well no big deal until one of them refused to marry a suitable husband.

As the film, which cut out some of the most interesting parts of Anne’s life, continues, we see Anne become increasingly masculine in dress and behaviour. There’s one scene when her hair has been curled and it looks god-awful, yet still the femininity garners compliments.

A lot more could have been done with the subject matter, but it’s well casted, well acted and pretty to look at. Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack is currently posted preproduction on IMDB

Director James Kent

Writer Jane English

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Vasiliy Stalin (Son of the People’s Father or The Son of the Leader of the People) Syn Ottsa Narodov (2013)

There never was a Vasiliy Stalin.”

Vasiliy Stalin (Son of the People’s Father or The Son of the Leader of the People) Syn Ottsa Narodov is a riveting and ultimately compassionate look at the life of Stalin’s troubled son, Vasiliy. This 2013 12-episode biopic, made for Russian television, covers the years of Vasiliy’s childhood, his first marriage to Galina, WWII, his second marriage to the daughter of Marshal Timoshenko, Stalin’s death and concludes in the 1960s. With each episode running approximately 55 minutes, this excellent, immersive biopic with a memorable musical score, takes its time detailing the life of Vasiliy, and even at a couple of points takes a few digressions and follows another story thread. At one point, for example, the plot follows Vasiliy’s sister, Svetlana’s romance with a journalist sent to Stalingrad. These digressions do not detract from the main storyline, but instead flesh out the complicated nuances of Soviet life under Stalin.

We see red-headed Vasiliy growing up in a remote home under the care of Sergei Efimov. Vasiliy is a bold, courageous boy who longs to fly, and so as a youth he trains as a pilot and rapidly rises in the Soviet Air Forces. Vasiliy presents many problems for his superiors who quake at the idea of disciplining this exuberant young man, but it’s through Vasiliy’s stellar military career that we see that while being the son of Stalin brings fast tracked rank (he made General in his 20s), Stalin is loathe to place Vasiliy in any danger as he would make a high-profile POW. In one scene, Stalin struggles with the German propaganda generated about POW Yakov, Stalin’s son from his first marriage.

Vasiliy StalinIt’s during the flight training and WWII  scenes that Vasiliy really seems to hit his peak. He’s a great leader of men, and this is defined through a couple of scenes involving fellow pilots. In one scene, a trainee steals Vasiliy’s watch, and while the other pilots want to see the thief punished, Vasiliy’s judgement shows compassion, generosity, and wisdom. In another scene, Vasiliy goes unpunished by his fearful commanders who are terrified to punish the son of Stalin, but Vasiliy insists on joining his peers in lock-up. In yet another WWII scene, we see a dear friend of Vasiliy’s make an enemy of the wrong man and after a petty incident, the friend (Alexey Vertkov) is arbitrarily carted off to the convict brigade where the convicts/pilots fly damaged planes. Vasiliy throws caution aside and challenges authority and yet this is an instance in which his name cannot save his friend. Through this episode we see the chilling randomness of Stalin’s punishments–even of those who make a major contribution to the war effort. Repeatedly, we see Stalin pick up his phone to relay orders to Beria, and Beria (sexual predator and Chief of NKVD) always seems to already have the intel on everyone in the entire country.

The WWII scenes include some fantastic dogfights, and there’s no doubt that Vasiliy Stalin was a Soviet hero, and yet at the same time we see his marriage falling apart and his drinking escalating which hint at the idea that Vasiliy may not fare well in peacetime. In fact as we follow Vasiliy into his 30s, he loses that youthful enthusiasm and instead seems weary and yet still keen to find an active role in post WWII Soviet society. Whoever did the make-up for the film did a great job of aging Vasiliy.

While the film depicts Vasiliy’s three major relationships with women: Galina, the daughter of Marshal Timoshenko, and Kapitalina, an athlete, there are generous hints that Vasiliy was a womanizer. At one point his minders cannot find him, and when the question arises regarding whether or not he has a mistress, one minder answers that there are addresses of women all over Moscow. It’s through his relationships with women that Vasily is cruel and at his worst, while he is at his best in his relationships with men.

The film argues that Vasiliy was seen as a threat by both Beria (a very creepy performance) and Khrushchev (portrayed as an indecisive, insecure idiot), and the film explores Vasiliy’s years in prison and ends with him sent into exile. Vasiliy was ultimately his father’s son, and since Khrushchev was busy repudiating Stalin’s rule, his Cult of Personality and secret murders, it was probably inevitable that Vasiliy would be silenced.

Vasiliy and Svetlana were the product of Stalin’s second marriage to Nadezhda Alliluyeva. While official sources state that Nadezhada died of peritonitis, she was reportedly found dead of a gunshot wound following a public fight with Stalin. The film shows a brief flashback moment seen through Vasiliy’s memory with the gun laying on the ground next to Nadezhda’s left hand, and we may draw our own conclusions regarding the controversy of Nadezhda’s death. There are a couple of other controversial moments in Vasiliy’s life: an aviation accident is mentioned briefly and then the plane disaster involving the USSR ice hockey team is presented in an entirely different manner than the Wikipedia version of events. Similarly the film hints that Stalin’s death may not have been from natural causes, but this comes only from a doubt expressed by Vasiliy, and again, we are left to speculate about the truth for ourselves.

Vasiliy is ultimately a tragic figure whose connection to Stalin was a double-edged sword. While being Stalin’s son gave untold privilege and status,Vasiliy paid dearly for the connection after his father’s death, and the film makes it quite clear that being the son of Stalin was a role that bore tremendous baggage. In his youth, Vasiliy just had to mention his famous surname in order to reverse consequences, and one of the film’s two great ironies is that in the last decade of his life, Vasiliy Stalin became, to all purposes, an unknown man of no importance. The second great irony underscored by the film is the way Vasiliy leaves his children to be brought up by minders–a repetition of his own tragic history.

Russian actor Gela Meskhi as Vasiliy hammers out a terrific, sensitive performance as a troubled man haunted by his own demons. While the rest of the country was able to move on with the new post Stalin paradigm, Vasiliy could not– as to deny his name and his relationship with his father was too big a price to pay. Highly recommended for fans of Russian cinema. And Russian film fans, keep your eyes open for Gela Meskhi; this is a talent to watch.

Directed by Sergei Shcherbin

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