The relative obscurity of van Brakel’s works gives these decades-old films a sort of newness. Indeed, there’s a genuineness in the films that seems foreign, even exotic, in our streaming age.
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Her career spans six decades, yet Holland’s Nouchka van Brakel is little-known on this side of the Atlantic. A student of the Dutch Film Academy, van Brakel entered professional cinema in the 1970s in the midst of Second-Wave Feminism and New Wave. Between 1977 and 1987, van Brakel directed and co-wrote four features. The first three make up The Nouchka van Brakel Trilogy, Cult Epics’ new Blu-ray collection: The Debut (Dutch: Het Debuut, 1977), A Woman Like Eve (Een Vrouw als Eva, 1979), and The Cool Lakes of Death (Van de Koele Meren des Doods, 1982).
Each of the trilogy’s films centers on an archetype of a young woman in the midst of sexual awakening under complex circumstances. In The Debut, we have an adolescent tomboy introduced to sex by a man twice her age. In A Woman Like Eve, a married mother of two leaves her white-collar family to be with a lesbian communard. Set in the nineteenth-century, The Cool Lakes of Death tells of a repressed young woman who departs a loveless marriage to embark on a carnal odyssey.
The protagonists of these films share a common thread of dissatisfaction with social normality. Consider Caroliene, the subject of The Debut, a high schooler alienated from her peers by her general disinterest in their antics. Liquor, cigarettes, and parties hold no allure; rather, her spark of life comes after she meets Hugo (Gerard Cox), back to Holland after a long stay in Zambia.
In a nod to neorealism, van Brakel cast an inexperienced youth, Marina de Graaf, in the role of Caroliene. Her on-screen inexperience manifests in awkward deliveries, blank expressions, and sudden (and jarring) outbursts of emotion.
To van Brakel’s credit, de Graaf’s inconsistent performance lends an aura of childlike naïveté. There are numerous scenes that reaffirm that Caroliene is a child, as when she races kids on her bicycle, plays with her father’s medical equipment, and rides a luggage cart at the airport.
All this makes the sexual element of The Debut that much more uncomfortable. Caroliene is almost predatory in her pursuit of Hugo early in the film. He initially dismisses her attraction, soon showing discomfort as her affection becomes more physical. It’s only after her repeated advances that Hugo succumbs.
As van Brakel states in the film’s companion booklet:
In contradiction with the famous Lolita story . . . [Caroliene] is not the victim of male sexual suppression. She is the one who follows her desire for sexual experience. It is her own choice to enquire the possibilities of her sexual longings. And she is also the one who ends the love affair when she has enough of it. [pp. 2-3].
Van Brakel doesn’t shy away from exhibiting the sexual intensity of Caroliene and Hugo’s relationship, which adds yet another disconcerting layer to this depiction of taboo romance. Van Brakel acknowledges the taboo nature: Caroliene first boasts to her friends about her affair only to be met with revulsion. The couple fares no better elsewhere, drawing whispers and glares during their outings.
It’s at one such outing where the audience sees a sudden turn of events. Hugo, appalled with Caroliene’s dance at a discotheque, yanks her away from her friends and takes her outside. The dance in question is more silly than shocking, but it’s enough to propel Hugo to berate Caroline while professing his love and groping her.
It’s a bizarre change of character for Hugo, going from empathetic to outright creepy. There’s no buildup to this change, no sign of transformation. The next time they meet is when Hugo pursues Caroliene on the road, knocking her off her bicycle and forcing her into his car. Her declaration that she no longer loves him is enough to leave Hugo a tearful mess and allow her to exit peacefully.
Van Brakel ends the film on a hopeful yet uncertain note. Caroliene emerges from the affair with renewed confidence, leaving a damaged Hugo to return with his wife to Zambia. Caroliene, unshackled from the affair, is free to resume her life with all the challenges it entails.
In retrospect, The Debut is a story without a hero. Caroliene is ostensibly the protagonist, but she is also the pursuer of an unethical relationship between an adult and a child. As van Brakel notes in the earlier quote, Caroliene starts the affair and ends it. Nor can one defend the character of Hugo who, as an adult, is the one of authority who knows right and wrong.
It would have been more effective if van Brakel had conveyed how guilt over his actions and the stress of concealing the affair weighs on him. Such conveyance would explain his dramatic change of character in the film’s third act.
Forty-five years after its release, the lasting provocativeness of The Debut is a testament to van Brakel’s bold vision.
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Van Brakel’s second feature, A Woman Like Eve, steers focus onto an adult protagonist who – despite being relatively young – sees her life already passing by.
Indeed, van Brakel introduces the titular Eve (Eva, actually) in the middle of the night, wandering through the small rooms and tight corridors of her apartment in somber reflection. Her expression is grim, even when she looks over her children’s artwork.
Portrayed by Monique van de Ven, Eve conveys a level of emotional maturity well ahead of The Debut’s Caroliene. This owes a great deal to the talent of de Ven, who worked with van Brakel in Turkish Delight. Her acting experience shows in Eve’s many layers of nuance, a mixture of humility, docility, and yearning – the last slowly becoming the dominant layer as the story progresses.
The catalyst for Eve’s “awakening” comes with a nervous breakdown early in the film, a breakdown made worse as it happens during a family gathering. Eve’s husband, Ad (played exceptionally by Peter Faber), arranges for her to vacation in the French countryside. It’s there that Eve encounters Liliane (Maria Schneider), a bohemian singer from a local commune.
Liliane’s relaxed attitude, open affection, and socially unbound values fascinate Eve. Liliane and her community represent the antithesis of Eve’s life in Holland: rural versus urban, collectivist versus individualist, and – consequential to the film’s overarching conflict – liberated versus confined. Eve returns home with a sense of passion, for herself as a woman and for Liliane as a symbol of an alternative path.
A Woman Like Eve shows esthetic evolution with a clear use of setting and design to impress mood on the viewer. One feels Eve’s confinement in those tight halls and compressed rooms of her home. One feels the coldness in the shades of grey and white that make up the apartment’s décor. One feels the concrete gloominess of the city. Conversely, the viewer feels the radiance of the French countryside and its bohemian residents.
Over time, the stuffiness of these confines grows as Eve struggles to find “a place of her own” within the apartment. She develops an interest in photography, but is unable to secure her own time and space. Ad, seeing Eve’s growing assertiveness, is quick to remind her he is the wage-earner, he pays for their belongings, and thus he owns everything.
Unfortunately, Liliane comes off shallower than Ad. Where Ad symbolizes masculine convention and repression, Liliane is meant to symbolize a freer and more fulfilling alternative. Schneider falls short of bringing those elements to fruition, delivering lines in monotone and maintaining a stoic expression throughout. Liliane is a woman whose vibrancy and liberality are so strong as to inspire Eve to leave husband, home, and financial security.
Schneider’s Liliane simply doesn’t exude those elements, which makes Eve’s departure from her family to be with Liliane in France so unsatisfying. The stakes are high: Eve’s romance with Liliane ends a marriage, shatters her family, and leaves her stigmatized as both an adulterer and – unusual in ’70s mainstream – a lesbian. Yet Schneider’s emotionally flat Liliane leaves the viewer to ask: What is it about this person that can drive another to give up so much?
The film concludes thematically with that same question. Eve and Liliane feud over the former’s desire to reclaim her children. However, Liliane has no desire to deal with the responsibility of parentage, even if it’s only part-time per the conditions of Eve’s divorce. Liliane comes off as cold and selfish, lacking empathy for her lover’s children. The rift renders Eve uncertain about the long-term viability of her relationship with Liliane.
Yet it’s that uncertainty that makes A Woman Like Eve the most relatable film in van Brakel’s trilogy. Relationships, romantic or platonic, bear uncertainty. Van Brakel would have done an injustice ending the film on a note of Eve and Liliane living happily ever after. As in the real world, the couple don’t know what tomorrow will bring, much less how they will handle it. Such is the grace and pain of life.
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The Cool Lakes of Death is the last and most ambitious film in the trilogy. Based on a novel by Frederik van Eeden, it’s a nineteenth-century period piece about a vibrant young woman, Hedwig (portrayed by Renée Soutendijk), who abandons a constricting and unhappy life for one driven by physical passion.
As a production, The Cool Lakes of Death is a monumental step from The Debut and A Woman Like Eve. The film’s gorgeous costumes and elaborate settings – from Dutch manors to British concert halls – could be mistaken for a Merchant-Ivory production.
There is an even more pronounced use of esthetics for mood than in A Woman Like Eve. It’s best use is seen in the contrast of dour and gray stone backdrops of Hedwig’s youth and marriage versus the warm and colorful tones that light up her second act. It’s that act that sees Hedwig’s vibrant liaison with Ritsaart, a loving pianist played by Derek de Lint. Hedwig’s tragic third-act slide sees the drab shades return as her life unravels in Victorian streets, hospitals, and sanitariums.
Such is the volatile course of The Cool Lakes of Death, a course far more expansive and crushing than van Brakel’s prior features. The film opens with Hedwig, still a child, informed of her mother’s sudden death. She not only loses a parent, she loses her primary source of affection. The vacuum left behind is filled with the cold rigidity of teachers, governesses, and her father.
The tidbits of warmth come from her burgeoning sexuality, which draws derision from elders. In one scene, her governess walks in on a partly undressed Hedwig soaking in the sun’s rays provocatively. The scene provokes the governess’s condemnation for Hedwig’s lustful sin and a vow that she’ll never experience true motherhood.
Hemmed in by a conservative family and society, Hedwig initially chooses respectability over happiness when she marries an aloof notary. It’s not long before the weight of a lifelong, loveless marriage drives Hedwig into despair – and into the arms of Ritsaart.
It is during her long affair with the traveling Ritsaart that Hedwig escapes Holland, sees a wider world, and experiences actual joy. Though their adulterous relationship is one shunned – even illegal – in much of nineteenth-century Europe, it’s this forbidden affair that yields genuine love. The embodiment of Hedwig and Ritsaart’s love is their child, whose birth marks the plot’s happiest peak.
Then comes the fall. True to her governess’s denunciation, Hedwig’s motherhood is brief as her child dies shortly after birth. This loss drives Hedwig into psychological descent and into the dreary streets of London. Reality recedes as the world and faces around her become distorted, exemplified in strange camera angles, extreme close-ups, and quick-cuts.
After stints in an asylum and French convent, Hedwig at last finds physical rest and mental clarity. Most importantly, she finds spiritual peace. Guided by one of the convent’s nuns, Hedwig recovers the maternal warmth she lost in childhood. She accepts her many travails and achieves peace with that acceptance, allowing her to retire back to Holland into solitude.
The Cool Lakes of Death features the most complex dynamic of van Brakel’s trilogy. Hedwig begins the film with her heart and body repressed in a religiously conservative home and society. By following her desire, she finds only a fleeting happiness that ends with terrible loss.
However, Hedwig recovers from that loss when she returns to a repressed, conservative, and religious environment. Paradoxically, her newfound spiritual peace frees her from her lustful desires. Rather than signal freedom, her sexual awakening bound her by shackling her to physical indulgence.
The film’s end is somber, but it’s also conclusive. Hedwig has experienced life in all its messiness; she has dealt with the ordeals of several lifetimes compared to the repressed, predictable existence she started with. There is nothing more for her to seek: she’s faced it all, good and bad, and she’s survived.
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If The Noucha van Brakel Trilogy as package has a fault, it’s the sparse bonus features in the three-disc set. The few extras here amount to photo galleries, brief behind-the-scenes featurettes, and a small (roughly translated) companion booklet with notes from the filmmaker. Commentary tracks (if not from van Brakel, then perhaps from critics) or a brief retrospective on the filmmaker would have enhanced the package greatly.
Nevertheless, The Nouchka van Brakel Trilogy is a welcome collection that gives the American cinephile a sense of discovery. The relative obscurity of van Brakel’s works gives these decades-old films a sort of newness. Indeed, there’s a genuineness in the films that seems foreign, even exotic, in our streaming age. This Blu-ray collection will hopefully garner more appreciation for this art-house filmmaker and her work.
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All images provided by Cult Epics. You can order the trilogy from them or any of the usual sources.