Theo van Gogh died on November 2nd 2004. He was assassinated in response to his frequent criticisms of Islam and his short film Submission, which dealt with Islamic violence against women. As van Gogh's feature films failed to find much of an audience outside his native Holland, the manner of the director's death is what he is best known for worldwide, but now that three of his films have been packaged together on DVD for UK release, perhaps that will change. One might expect these films to be confrontational, provocative pieces of work, but they're actually much more intimate and low-key than you might expect, and they are provocative in subtler ways.
Essentially, the three films in this box set are two-handers, and although a couple of extra hands occasionally get involved, van Gogh is always focused on the dynamics of the central relationship. The most-stripped down (and, I think, most effective) of these films is 1-900, in which Ariane Schluter and Ad van Kempen play a lonely pair who become acquainted via a phone sex chatline and subsequently maintain their relationship with regular Thursday night calls. How much of themselves each character is revealing in the talk that surrounds their erotic fantasies and masturbation is constantly in question, which seems to be the key theme in van Gogh's work. Reality and fantasy are played with in all of these films, and people wear masks or play roles to hide the truth of who they are.
In Blind Date, a couple (Renée Fokker and Peer Mascini) meet each other regularly after placing ads in the personals section of the newspaper, and at each meeting they appear to be playing a different role. It quickly transpires that they are actually a grieving married couple (their dead daughter narrates, in one of van Gogh's less wise decisions) and that this is their method for dealing with the unspoken emotions caused by their loss. Again, van Gogh gradually peels back the layers to reveal the pain that lingers within each character, although the gimmicky, theatrical nature of their recurring meetings detracts from the film's emotional heft, and it could be argued that van Gogh misjudges the climax.
Interview is probably van Gogh's most well-known film, as it was remade in 2007 by Steve Buscemi, with Sienna Miller taking on the female role. Both films essentially tell the same story, focusing on an embittered war reporter who has to interview an actress he views as little more than an empty-headed bimbo with plastic tits, but I'd recommend the original version for the superb performances from Katja Schuurman and Pierre Bokma. In fact, the quality of acting on display in these films is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Theo van Gogh Collection, with the director drawing exceptional performances from his actors in challenging, multi-faceted roles. It is worth viewing these films to see these actors at work, but it is also an opportunity to experience a director with a keen grasp of male-female relationships who explored those relationships in a frank, funny and compelling manner. Theo van Gogh was certainly a filmmaker with a distinctive voice, before it was brutally silenced.
The Theo van Gogh Collection is released on DVD on May 9th.
Buy The Theo Van Gough Collection here