Cult Epics Takes on Dutch Director Martin Koolhoven’s Mysterious Memory Piece, Starring Carice van Houten
DIRECTED BY MARTIN KOOLHOVEN/DUTCH/2001
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: APRIL 11, 2023/CULT EPICS
As the professionally legitimate one in a pair of identical twin brothers, Alex has hit a snag. As a photographer, he’s suddenly gone impotent. Meaning, he can find and frame up his subjects just fine, but he just… can’t… release… that… shutter. At least, not when he’s shooting people. This is bad, as Alex is a professional photographer.
In just such an inopportune moment, the phone rings. It’s his twin brother, Aram, imploring him to come home to watch over their sick mum for a few days. In this brief exchange, we learn quite a bit about Alex, namely, he’d rather not ever go back home nor have to deal with his mother ever again. But, being a dutiful grown son, he hits the road. Which is good, except that maybe he should’ve taken a nap first. No sooner does he fully nod off while driving than he’s abruptly awakened by a young woman in the back seat (Carice van Houten). She says her name is Sandra. She’ll remain a part of the film through to the end.
If you’re hoping to know why the film is called AmnesiA, sorry. I can confirm that as written and directed by the multitalented and multifaceted Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven (Winter in Wartime– a sublime film in its own right), AmnesiA is a fully immersive slow burn that exudes a mysterious Lynchian obliqueness from its beginning to its jarring end. The film is composed entirely of mildly distorted angles and a color palate that invites the notion that some or all of this might not be “real”. The questions are, where does that suspicion apply, and why? This much is certain: the word “AMNESIA” is prominently above the family estate’s entrance, corral style. Strange choice, to be sure. On the nose? You might assume so, but not really.
Fedja van Huêt portrays both Alex and his gangster brother Aram with Karloff-ian exactitude witnessed as the famed Frankenstein actor’s own astonishing twin turn in 1935’s The Black Room. That means, Alex and Aram not only have numerous scenes together, but it’s also never obvious that we’re watching a carefully crafted manipulation. These adult twins are always distinctly two different humans fully absorbed in their own situations. Though Aram is the fly-by-night criminal who isn’t above bring his work home with him, Alex is a much darker, brooding person.
Or is he? AmnesiA, though never outwardly obvious, is obvious about all of this being more than meets the eye. Surrealistic quirk abounds throughout, not the least of which involves whose loyalties lie where, and who might be real and/or representations of a possibly divided self. We’re never really meant to know what’s what in these regards, an aspect that writer/director Koolhoven extended to his cast. This is particularly true of Carice van Houten’s ephemeral performance as Sandra, in that the actress claims to have been confused about her character all the while. That’s exactly as Koolhoven wanted it. The only thing we know for sure is that with Sandra, it’s always fire or water.
Included on the limited-edition bonus disc are two more Martin Koolhoven films, basically making this release a bona fide director’s showcase collection. The bonus films are 1999’s quirky coming-of-age Suzy Q and 1997’s short-but-not-that-short Dark Light (Duister Licht).
Suzy Q stands out as a particular get for a few reasons. Despite being made for television, it won numerous film awards, and maintains a lofty reputation as one of the finest Dutch films ever made. To this day, it’s commonly cited as an unconventional favorite for many who have seen it, and on Koolhoven’s filmography on the popular movie app Letterboxd, it’s currently ranked above AmnesiA. All of this despite its relative scarcity on home video over the years.
Why so popular? The most obvious answer is Carice van Houten (Sandra in AmnesiA) as the movie’s namesake. Suzy is a just another teenage girl in mod mid-‘60s Amsterdam. She spends her days trying in vain to infiltrate the in-crowd and pining away for Mick Jagger. There is also a heavy darkness hanging over her home life in the form of her very abusive stepfather and checked-out mother. When Suzy manages to infiltrate the hotel room of visiting Jagger and then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, the once-in-a-lifetime bonding session with them proves to be a life-impacting event. But will anyone believe her that it happened?
Suzy Q plays out with greater visual exaggeration than even the noticeably warped AmnesiA, Koolhoven’s very next film after this one. It’s an ultra-specific nostalgic blast in its recreation of rural Amsterdam in the late 1960s. Distortion lenses, bouncy colors, and of course period fashions and impressive needle-drops all abound, but rarely distract from the engaging teenage story at hand. As thoughtfully put together as Suzy Q is, the movie truly belongs to the charmingly relatable van Houten. This film, for her, is the kind of career boosting spotlight most actors could only dream about.
Dark Light (Duister Licht; 1997) is similar in level of excellence if truly nothing else. It’s a fine thing that Koolhoven, who wrote and directed this fifty-four-minute award-winning television project, not only has the freedom to creatively vary the sensibilities and tones from film to film, but also more often than not yields exceptional results. Dark Light bears little if any visual directorial resemblance to Suzy Q or AmnesiA. Unlike Suzy Q’s commitment to canted angles and forced perspectives, the deeply serious Dark Light remains grounded in standardized depth of field and muted Earth-tones. All of it is Koolhoven bending effectively to the material, whatever material he generates.
With Dark Light, it’s a taut rural two-hander about a former prisoner (Marc van Uchelen, bearing a certain resemblance to Colin Farrell, even with the bleach-blonde hair) being held captive by a surly gun-toting religious madwoman (Viviane de Muynck) after being caught breaking into her farmhouse. All alone and wrought with oozing open wounds, this woman takes her Biblical fundamentalism back to the Dark Ages, as evidenced in her wild-eyed mental intermingling of out-and-out superstition and anything resembling a more contemporary version of the faith. She fancies herself the Old Testament character of Job, having already lost everything but insistent on remaining in her warped notion of God’s service. She keeps her prisoner in shackles and forces him to do farm work. He’s no fool in doing everything he can to manipulate an escape, but it’s never so simple.
Dark Light is an astonishingly accomplished character-driven thriller propelled by its notions of putting one’s beliefs ahead of other people, even to the point of imprisoning them because of it. The metaphor is clear in this decades-old Dutch film- one that tragically resonates in the God n’ country trigger-happy America of today. Seminarians of all Christian denominations would do well to watch Dark Light, and seriously weigh what Koolhoven is saying, and how he’s saying it. Be warned, however, this film also depicts a very graphic real animal death, a pig being slaughtered.
Going back to the main attraction’s initial release is the thirty-eight-minute behind the scenes featurette, The Making of AmnesiA. Largely an interview with Koolhoven at the time, it is supplemented with plenty of b-roll depicting on-set work and shooting. Koolhoven definitely scored big-time with the remote castle/compound location surrounded with junk cars, as all of it perfectly befits his symbolism-fueled narrative. As AmnesiA is brand new when the interview was conducted, Koolhoven is understandably cagey about sharing too much about it or revealing any layered meanings. Carice van Houten is shown to be a bit frustrated and in the dark about her own character, an aspect that comes out further in an accompanying ninety-second piece of the actress on set, wondering what she’s doing. In a brand new 2022 conversation with Koolhoven & van Houten, any such frustration is long past. But he still won’t give her any answers about her character!
Cult Epics presents AmnesiA on Blu-ray via a brilliant 4K HD transfer, struck from the original camera negative and restored. The film is in its native Dutch language with English subtitles, and features an optional audio commentary by Koolhoven, actor Fedja van Huet, and moderated by Peter Verstraten. As is the case with such commentary sessions where the director is present, the track becomes more about the day-to-day making of the film rather than any kind of in-depth theorizing about various meanings within the work. But that’s fine. This is a satisfyingly active commentary, with all three participants engaged fully with whatever is going on in the film.
Here’s the official listing of what’s to be had in Cult Epics’ new slipcovered special two-disc edition of AmnesiA:
- 4K HD Transfer (from the original camera negative) and Restoration
- In Dutch with English Subtitles
- Introduction by Martin Koolhoven
- Audio Commentary by Martin Koolhoven, Fedja van Huet, moderated by Peter Verstraten
- A Brand New 2022 Conversation with Martin Koolhoven & Carice van Houten (44 Mins)
- The Making of AmnesiA (2001, 38 mins)
- Behind-the-Scenes with Carice van Houten (2001)
- Theatrical Trailer
DISC 2: LIMITED EDITION BONUS DISC – The TV films of Martin Koolhoven
- Suzy Q  (85 mins)
- Dark Light (Duister Licht)  (55 mins)
- New Slipcase Art by Peter Strain
- Double-sided Sleeve with Original Bonus Film Posters
All in all, this Amnesia release is a cool Koolhoven collection that it unlikely to be forgotten.