A Woman Like Eve/The Debut/The Cool Lakes of Death
ALL THREE DIRECTED BY NOUCHKA VAN BRAKEL
Who is Nouchka van Brakel, the strikingly feminist Dutch filmmaker? Don’t let the moniker fool you; the three van Brakel films considered here are no easy-empowerment sledgehammers. Rather, van Brakel is simply telling stories of female characters in an uncompromising light. Within the fabric of the lesbian/child custody drama A Woman Like Eve, the hot-button sexual coming-of-age The Debut (1977), and the exquisite period melodrama of The Cool Lakes of Death (1982), the filmmaker’s choices are bold, diverse, and always painfully honest. Van Brakel’s deeply committed and unwavering approach to the hard truths of whatever her persevering characters are going through renders her unwavering. That the issues at hand- as varied as they are- are all thoroughly female-centric renders her “feminist”.
Though not without moments of bold sexuality and nudity, these three films are rather traditional in their narrative approaches. These Blu-rays may be more conventional than the more niche fare that Cult Epics is known for, though these Dutch titles actually fit the catalog better than one may realize. They are, after all, foreign to a North American audience, and overtly push boundaries of content, albeit in ways according to social perceptions and acceptance of women.
Here, we individually consider each of the three terrifically executed recent van Brakel Blu-ray releases (sold separately or as a set, available June 29, 2021). Please note that these are covered in the order in which Cult Epics has initially released them individual as opposed to the chronology in which they were made. They could be watched in any order with no context lost.
A Woman Like Eve (1979)
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: APRIL 6, 2021/CULT EPICS
A Woman Like Eve (Een vrouw als Eva) feels downright transportive for a few reasons, the least of which is the novel nature of the main character’s sexuality. The film is all about a devoted but burned-out wife and mother slowly breaking free of the life she’s known in favor of one of lesbianism.
Later on, once Eve (Monique van de Ven) has fully transitioned to a new relationship with Liliane (Maria Schneider), a fairly common reaction around town is “I’ve never seen an actual lesbian couple before! I’ve only read about such things.” This, among other aspects, firmly plants A Woman Like Eve in the era of its release, which, more precisely, is 1979. (Of course, hair styles, fashion, and general filmic ambiance encourage the film’s transportive nature, as well).
Filmmaker Nouchka van Brakel proceeds to take us on a trip both unpleasant and rewarding. Eve, overwrought in her domestic duties, is sent away on a trip intended for her unwind and gather her bearings. What happens instead is more than anyone bargained for. After falling in with a group of anarchistic female farmers, the seed of Eve’s future is planted. She returns home, but with new ideals, a new outlook. New passions.
A Woman Like Eve is titled thusly in allusion to the Biblical Eve, who partook of forbidden fruit and was subsequently cast out of the Garden. Van Brakel is questioning the perception of a traditional “paradise”, as her protagonist’s “Garden” begins as a traditional urban home, but then becomes the literal gardens of Liliane’s rural, society-rejecting collective. The director seems to be asking, why has this particular fruit been considered “forbidden” by organized societies? And even as it gains in acceptance in this bygone era, how on Earth does a woman like Eve reconcile her love and devotion to her children with her newly radically altered life?
A Woman Like Eve culminates in a custody battle with her by-then-ex-husband (Peter Faber) over their young son and daughter. Actress Monique van de Ven does a remarkable job portraying the title character in all her phases. Maria Schneider’s performance is something more of a conundrum, as she appears somewhat checked out. Whether this was the overburdened actress’s own traumas coming through or a calculated performance choice, “distractedly unsettled” is, for better or worse, who Liliane is throughout.
A Woman Like Eve, tender but tough, garnered minor acclaim stateside back in its day, serving as the Dutch submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 52nd Academy Awards. Though the film didn’t make the cut for that nomination, it was reportedly championed by actress Shirley MacLaine and likely inspired filmmaker John Sayles in his similarly themed 1983 film, Lianna. Gay and lesbian groups have understandably embraced it for its deeply sympathetic examination of a lesbian trying to find her way in a world that isn’t ready for her.
A Woman Like Eve is presented as a new HD transfer and restoration taken from an original 35mm print. Though it seems that no official original elements were used in that process, the Blu-ray nonetheless looks quite nice. Both the original LPCM 2.0 mono track and a new DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track are available as audio options. Of very particular interest amid the three discs covered here is the inclusion of a forty-minute interview with van Brakel by journalist Floortje Smit at Eye Filmmuseum. This 2020 career-spanning chat with the filmmaker is a very rare on-stage, post-screening, in-person exchange that occurred during the COVID-19 global pandemic. Of these three Cult Epics releases, this is the most substantial bonus feature, and the only time we hear directly from van Brakel. She covers not just these films, but the expanse of her career. Aside from that, the remaining bonus features are trailers and an image gallery.
The Debut (1977)
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: APRIL 27, 2021/CULT EPICS
Following A Woman Like Eve, Cult Epics steps back a few years for Nouchka van Brakel’s feature debut, The Debut (Het Debuut). Based on a controversial novel by Hester Albach with a screenplay by van Brakel and Carel Donck, the film depicts (per IMDb) “the delicate story of the impossible love between an older married man and a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl”. “Delicate” and “impossible” are correct; so is “awkward”, “uncomfortable”, and “grossly improper”.
Yet, to discuss The Debut on its own terms (and no, it does not condone the central love affair it depicts), one must follow the narrative via the perspective from which it’s told: that of Carolien, the aforementioned fourteen-year-old schoolgirl. Played with feisty gusto by Marina de Graaf (who was actually seventeen when the film was made), Carolien is a bubbling combination of bratty, bold, and utterly restless. She can’t resist turning heads, causing a scene, and shocking the prudes. Boy, did she ever come to the right movie.
As Carolien’s relationship with forty-one-year-old Hugo (a Michael Caine-like Gerald Cox), we see more and more of her more and more frequently. When he calls her out as a “horny young girl”, she accepts the label as a badge of honor. In 1970s Dutch films such as this, nudity was typically commonplace, both sexual and non-sexual. Though never explicit, The Debut serves up plenty of both. De Graaf seems entirely game for whatever van Brakel asks of her, including proudly taking to the outdoor hotel room balcony overlooking a very busy street in broad daylight, completely naked and post-coital, to announce to the world, “I’VE LOST MY VIRGINITY!!!” In the exterior extreme wide shot, she earns a single car honk.
Speaking of Michael Caine, the 1984 Stanley Donen film Blame it on Rio comes to mind. That film also hinges on the inappropriate relationship between a teenage girl and a middle-aged man who’s a friend of her parents. The Debut, however, unlike Blame it on Rio, has the very good sense not to be a comedy. Nor does it go exotic in its need to justify the secret fling. On the contrary, the film’s Amsterdam locale is perpetually cold and wet, with unsightly patches of stubborn snow on the ground. It’s an apt metaphor for Carolien and Hugo’s affair.
The notable exception is early on when they fall for one another while they, along with her parents and his wife, stroll on a relatively sunny beach with crashing waves. Almost magically, a pair of large twin kites appear, circling around them, tails majestically flailing together. One of the tails catches Hugo unawares as he walks, yanking him from the pack of fellow grownups. Who knows how difficult it was or how long it took the crew to get that shot, but it’s a brilliant little moment courtesy of van Brakel.
The whole of The Debut, while effectively immersive in its cast spell of dread mixed with forbidden romance, does not speak to any such contemporary social issues in a progressive way as A Woman Like Eve does. That said, (and a word of warning,) there is a rather harrowing rape scene late in the film. Van Brakel captures it completely free of leering or sexuality. It is simply several seconds of terrible struggle and unsettling violence. At the end of it all, Carolien is turned loose into the rest of her life, left to move on and hopefully grow in the wake of this shared indiscretion.
The new Blu-ray from Cult Epics boasts a terrific transfer (from an original 35mm print) and subtitles for a relatively obscure Dutch title such as this. (The Debut, though mentioned on van Brakel’s Wikipedia page, has no entry of its own). There is a choice of mono audio tracks, either a new one or the original. The extras are minimal, but that’s okay. Just a very brief vintage TV segment covering the film, an image gallery, its native trailer, and some others.
The Cool Lakes of Death (1982)
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MAY 11, 2021/CULT EPICS
How does a completely sheltered woman of God go to being a morphine-addicted vagabond? In 1870s Holland, it turns out that such a degeneration is more of a direct line than the winding road one may imagine.
Exquisitely shot and ornately dressed, Nouchka van Brakel’s adaptation of Frederik van Eeden’s novel The Cool Lakes of Death (Van de koele meren des doods) is not to be missed by fans of uncompromising World Cinema. In depicting this deeply feminine and sympathetic character study of one woman’s torturous social and mental downfall, the filmmaker is commenting on the historical cloistering and confinement of the fairer sex.
That is, until marriage, when the unspoken switch is suddenly thrown, and such women are expected to perform sexually at their husband’s beck and call. Here though, the situation is all the more complicated as the husband is also actively harboring unhealthy repressive beliefs- and quite staunchly. No amount of tightly secured corsets and parasols or layers of topcoats and trousers can suppress these things forever, and in this case, the membrane of proper decorum is harshly challenged sooner than later.
This is a film that reaches the heights of melodrama at its midway point as the protagonist Hedwig- a bourgeois young lady with only the most remote knowledge of the ways of love- is slicing her wrist in the bathtub while her furious husband is ready to shoot her lover, who’s just happened to saunter through the front door. It’s a Sirk-ian moment having exploded and rendered explicitly; the pinnacle of which only Rainer Werner Fassbinder himself would regularly match.
From there, things only get worse for Hedwig. Previously declared “Hedwig the Sphinx” in a public illustration by a decadent artist acquaintance as played by returning van Brakel player Peter Faber, she slowly but surely transitions the depiction in her mind from unfathomably perplexing to an acknowledged part of her identity. But it is not nearly as simple as that. Even as she finally comes upon “the mystery” of orgasmic bliss with celebrated concert pianist and proto-Oscar Isaac Ritsaart (Derek de Lint). In her mind, this surely means that he is her true husband, and that the strict Gerard (Adriaan Olree) is but a fluke of the past. It’s yet another unfortunate confusion in her quickly unraveling mind.
Paul Verhoeven favorite and Dutch sex symbol of the time Renée Soutendijk absolutely carries the film as Hedwig. (Soutendijk had a supporting role in van Brakel’s A Woman Like Eve). By this early 1980s era, Soutendijk was a major Dutch film star, though her successful heavy lifting of Cool Lakes is generally unacknowledged, even within consolidated filmographies of her career. This is an injustice, as her austere depths fuel The Cool Lakes of Death. The films beautifully rendered eerie and beguiling atmospheres (the isolated steaming lakes of the title are a reoccurring motif of inevitable female and spiritual alienation) are fully informed by Soutendijk’s committed performance.
The Cool Lakes of Death may be van Brakel’s masterpiece. It deserves to be on the radar of every fan of Ingmar Bergman and the like. Bergman’s own 1982 film of personal spiritual suffering, the autobiographical Fanny and Alexander, likely trumped Cool Lakes for arthouse screens back then. Thankfully today, The Cool Lakes of Death is far more accessible. The recent Blu-ray edition from Cult Epics provides a restored (from the original negative) 4K transfer that is nothing short of brilliant. The foggy waters, the glowing incandescent interiors, the fully immersive 1870s of it all… This picture is something to get lost within.
A minor quibble… Unfortunately, there is no commentary track, though a film such as this calls out for at least one. (By either the filmmaker, cast members, a film historian, or a grouping of all three). What we do get is another very brief 1982 Polygoon Journal Newsreel segment featuring the film, a short promotional image gallery, and the trailers that can be found on the other van Brakel discs. For all three titles, collectors will want to snag the limited-edition packaging featuring original and newly designed art.
Although the greatest singular discovery among these three titles will remain in the eye of the beholder, the opinion put forth here is that The Cool Lakes of Death is the must-own van Brakel title for any serious cinema home library. Thankfully, however, that choice doesn’t need to happen, as all three of Cult Epics’ winningly diverse Blu-rays covered here are not only available individually, but also conveniently available (as of June 29, 2021) as the “Nouchka van Brakel Trilogy” set. However, one opts to collect these titles, Cult Epics is to be commended for such exquisite work in bringing us these films, all three the likes of which one might not immediately associate with the venerable company. Yet, on the other hand, these titles should arrive as no surprise insofar as Cult Epics is and always has been uncompromising in its output. This showcase of the important Dutch female filmmaker Nouchka van Brakel is a necessary and important representation in the ever-vital world of physical media.