Theoretically, Frederick Lau’s bank robber character from Victoria could have walked straight out of the forest at the German-Luxembourg border and right into Gutland as casino robber Jens, his loot in a duffel bag. Considerably more feral than in Sebastian Schipper’s one-shot wonder, he gruffly enters the charming little village of Schandelsmillen, looking for work. At first, the peculiar, dry-humoured villagers — lovingly created with little screen time each — are not very approachable. But after getting laid by the mayor’s daughter Lucy the first night (with Johnny Depp, Patrick Swayze and Luke Perry looking on), Jens seems to find more good will. He is offered a job as a farmhand and a caravan to live in, which seems to suit him just fine.
Yet amid the folkloric dirndl evenings and hearty beer fests that cement community, the audience shares Jens’ lingering suspicion that something is going on under the surface of all the jovial fun and swinging. The unease seems to revolve around the women, who, while formally relegated to traditionally female service roles, are also sexy and deviant, tempting and wild, and the catalyst for what seems to have happened in the village before Jens’ arrival.
The thriller elements of Gutland fall in line with a popular slew of dark, ambiguous German TV crime movies of the “things are not what they seem” variety, set in Grim(m) villages and woods (see also the TIFF17 world premiere of Germany’s first Netflix drama Dark, a supernatural thriller). Young director Govinda Van Maele pushes the boundaries of this new-ish trend. Agricultural sexploitation? Stepfordian snuff? It turns out that Van Maele also curates exploitation cinema under the moniker Gove Van Meatgrinder, so I am not far off in my bewilderment. In the genre confusion and visual ambition, alas, also lies the problem: the film has trouble deciding whether it is fish or fowl — pastoral naturalism or fantastical allegory — and it’s not foul enough for either. Admittedly, it might take a David Cronenberg, Quentin Tarantino or Guillermo del Toro to master the genre-blending challenge, and Gutland is a worthwhile experiment from an emerging filmmaker.
As viewers slowly experience the seasons, guided by a beautiful, static framing shot of an open field with three trees, one also experiences rather drawn-out stretches of not much at all. Even the arrival of the village police, while making Jens nervous and acting as a launch pad for some quirky humour, isn’t exactly stimulating and organic; the arrival of Jens’ two partners-in-crime creates a bit more of a shake-up, but it’s also not unannounced or unforeseen.
Let’s just say that, early on, Jens sees things are worrisome but not worrisome enough to run. As he is gradually lured into domestic bliss — in an abandoned remote farmhouse, with Lucy and her son — Jens falls into a Faustian deal with the devil more than he agrees to one. If you can suspend your disbelief for a bit and not go too deep into reasonable motivations, you will enjoy the lure.
The fairly static couldn’t-care-less loner role doesn’t give Lau much room to act or develop his character, but he has some great moments, especially the more tender, quiet ones, finding his bearings in an armchair, getting used to the motions of harvesting and chasing an AWOL cow (accompanied by a modern piano score).
Lovely every moment she is on screen, gutsy and vulnerable, cheerful and damaged (whether as vamp or housewife), is Vicky Krieps (Colonia Dignidad) as Lucy. Catch her next in the TV mini series Das Boot as well as alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming film. “I could have been a bit nicer to you,” Lucy matter-of-factly ponders after some rough sex. She grows on Jens, although he still can’t get a handle on her while she takes control of his life (which turns out to be another man’s life).
The brooding ominousness Van Maele plays with throughout seems to run through many of this year’s European offerings. But the art of creating and keeping the menace in the ambiguity — instead of going for open threat and violence — is a finicky one. Once you know where the story is going, there are no real surprises. When you think it ends, it keeps going (explicitly so). Finally, viewers are rewarded with a lavish, dreamy ending where Lau shines brightly. When the director goes for full oddness, he succeeds. When Van Maele adheres to genre (or TV) expectations or restrictions, he lags behind. The apparent European genre revival reminded me of the attention-grabbing TIFF15 horror film Der Nachtmahr by Akiz — while far from perfect and extremely loud, it works because it ignores the rules and takes viewers through unexpected mental hoops and loops.
Govinda Van Maele, born 1983 in Luxembourg, is an alumnus of the Berlinale Talent Campus. He has previously shot several shorts and a documentary. Gutland is his debut fiction feature, and a TIFF world premiere no less. The viewer remains as puzzled as Jens by this surreal village, as the protagonist morphs from lone wolf to community pillar. Not entirely new or original, not entirely wild and surprising, the absurdist caper is weird and alluring enough that I am curious to see what Van Maele will come up with next.
Jutta Brendemuhl (@JuttaBrendemuhl) is an arts writer and programmer (among others) for the Goethe-Institut and the European Union Film Festival Toronto. Jutta has worked with Bernardo Bertolucci, Wim Wenders, Robert Rauschenberg, Pina Bausch and other luminaries. When she isn’t sitting in an arthouse cinema in Berlin or Toronto, she might be watching old Die Hard DVDs in her living room. Her writing has appeared in POV, ScreenPrism, DIE ZEIT, German Film @ Canada blog and she’s indexed on IMDB. Jutta holds a master’s degree in English Literature and is a fellow of the Toronto Cultural Leaders Lab.