Bodies, Rest and Motion

Stages
Running time 80 minutes
Written by Jalein Laarman and Mijke de Jong
Directed by Mijke de Jong
Starring Elsie de Brauw, Marcel Musters, Stijn Koomen

Mijke de Jong’s Stages, from a screenplay (in Dutch with English subtitles) by Jalein Laarman and Mijke de Jong, manages to be both hyper-stylized in some aspects, and hyper-realistic in others. This is to say that for much of the time, the camera and soundtrack are fixed on the conversations of couples in restaurants and an occasional living room from the waist up so that we almost never see them standing or walking as they talk. And most of the time, the camera is focused on a divorced couple, Roos (Elsie de Brauw) and Martin (Marcel Musters), as they quarrel about their 17-year-old son, Isaac (Stijn Koomen). By contrast with his visually constricted and contentiously and repetitiously babbling parents, Isaac is shown in full-bodied repose and motion without ever uttering a word. The film thereby shifts convulsively from incessant chatter in wide-screen close-up to silent full-bodied movements and stationary poses in mid-level shots of Isaac.

When you think about it, is not so-called real life composed of a combination of noisy chatter and silent contemplation? Still, one expects movies to move much more than real life, and to show more of the human body than is shown here in this literally chamber-cinematic form of expression. Nonetheless, the sketchy narrative moves inexorably forward to a stunning last show of at least tentative reconciliation. Yet the burden placed on the actors is an immense one, and they respond magnificently to a very loosely controlled form of filmmaking.

As Mr. de Jong explains his modus operandi in his Director’s Statement: “What interests me is the inadequacy of human communication. We are all looking for love, but what happens if you don’t find it? The man and woman can’t communicate directly. They belong to a talkative, combative generation with the inability to understand its offspring. I recognize myself in the woman and in the man, but also in the son. I can be explosive, but I can also withdraw in silence.

Stages is about two extreme forms of communication: noise and silence. The man and the woman choose exposure: you see them in restaurants among many other people. They talk a lot, but neither of them is able to listen. They are filmed from nearby and in close-up. Their son prefers isolation. Stages really is a combination of two different styles that both fit me. I like both John Cassavetes’s unpolished films, and the stylized silent work of Tsai Ming Liang. … With this film I learned the value of daring to let go of control. … We captured numerous moments during shooting that I could never have planned in advance—moments that only these actors could have come up with. Film must make use of the strength within the people involved. In this film, this has worked better than I have ever seen.”

Should you see Stages? It all depends if you believe, as I do, that ceaseless efforts to communicate have value in and of themselves, regardless of the final outcome. It is what separates us from the beasts in our human jungle. An added dividend in the film is the magically incongruous smile of Ms. De Brauw as Roos.

asarris@observer.com

Bodies, Rest and Motion