Romance met Contrabas

On September 30, 2009, I had the pleasure of attending the Nederlands Film Festival. This year marked the festival’s 29th year of existence. Independent films are submitted and nominated for the coveted Gouden Kalf (Golden Calf) award and shown at various locations.

Unfortunately, I found out about the event a bit too late and was only able to make it to one film. Hoping to improve my Dutch, I was disappointed when the film turned out to be in English. The movie, however, was a delightful combination of fantastic angles, great story, stunning music by a live orchestra, and avant garde dance… though not without fault.

Romance met Contrabas, or Romance with Double Bass, is a short story written in 1886 by Anton Tsjechov (also spelled Chekhov) about a double bass player who gets himself in quite the pickle, dragging the poor princess Biboelova along for the ride. A long and hard Google search left me with nothing on the piece but a synopsis of the 1974 film version starring John Cleese.

The music was undoubtedly the best part of the evening. Piano, voice, viola, guitar, accordion, laptop, electronic board, and, of course, double bass all came together to create a most incredible sound. Highlights were alto Helena Rasker and bassist Quirijn van Regteren Altena. The multi-talented Janica Draisma performed a live dance solo, starred as Biboelova, and narrated the film. Oh, and she directed, adapted, and filmed the piece too (well, the parts she wasn’t in anyway).

It took me the first half of the 75 minute film to realize the the bassist onstage before me was none other than the fellow playing the hapless musician Smytsjkov (or Smychkov). He was an absolute delight in the film.

My major critiques are relatively few. First, I thought the dance was just a bit too bizarre. I do love modern and contemporary dance styles, but this was nothing more than waving the arms about interspersed with one or two weak hitch-kicks. It had absolutely no point and was, in my opinion, a huge distraction.

There were also a few inconsistencies. Like when Smytsjkov decides to hide in the bushes nearby the bridge. He ends up under a bridge with no bushes in sight. At another point, the narrator makes a point of saying that when Biboelova emerged from the water, only her jar of bait was to be found – her clothing having been stolen while she was in the lake retrieving her water lilies. I saw no jar of bait, but I did see her shoes, which she immediately put on and wore throughout the rest of the film. Perhaps shoes are not considered clothing in Russia?

The unnecessary and awkward sex scene that apparently took place in Smytsjkov’s imagination would have been better off cut from the final version of the film. There was a particularly poignant scene that ends Tsjechov’s story, where Biboelova strolls along the bridge above an oblivious Smytskov who, folks in the nearby village say, is still searching for his beloved Biboelova. This would have been the perfect ending to the film. But Ms. Draisma had other ideas. Other ideas that screamed “hey, lookie what I can do with a camera!”

By cutting the pointless ending after the ending and shortening some painfully long shots, the movie could easily have been about 10 minutes shorter and a lot easier to sit through. (At one point Biboelova has gone into the lake to fetch her water lilies. There are endless shots of her underwater as your bottom gets numb and you start to lose your focus. Finally after she pops up, the narrator describes her search as having taken 15 minutes. “I know!” I wanted to shout. “I just sat here and watched all 15 minutes of it!”)

All in all, an enjoyable artistic film accompanied by a nice glass of wine and surrounded by drinks and girl talk with a good friend. As for the Nederlands Film Festival? I’ve already got it on my calendar for next year.

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