The Columnist

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Columnist
"The magic of Ivo van Aart's film lies in its balance." | Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

Femke (Katja Herbers) has been living with her boyfriend for several months. When explaining to her daughter why she wants her to try to make the situation work, she says not “I love him,” but “He makes me happy.”

It’s a small detail but it sums up a good deal about who Femke is: this nice, respectably attired middle class woman who writes articles about the joy of soft boiled eggs and thinks the world would be a better place if we could all simply make the effort to get along. She’s a woman haunted by the snarky comments and lurid descriptions of sexual assault that men post about her on the internet. “Don’t read below the line,” says the boyfriend (Bram van der Kelen), repeating advice that every writer is given early on. Perhaps it’s easier for him, not feeling vulnerable in the same way, not having had to deal with threats against his child. He courts attention when he has a book to sell, even dressing to cultivate his brand, but ultimately he’s a very calm and reasonable person.

Femke is running out of calmness and reasonableness very fast.

Freedom of speech is one of those concepts that sounds great in the abstract. In practice, every sane person puts limits on it, whether that's the classic example of discouraging people from shouting "Fire!" in crowded theatres or something more specific like calling for Twitter accounts to be cancelled when they spew misogynist hate. In the end, there isn't much of a line between cancel culture and suggesting that people shouldn't be allowed to dismiss the opinions of popular authors, or between no-platforming and simply not offering people with certain viewpoints a platform in the first place. To pretend that words don't hurt people is to disengage from the reality of a world where they inspire suicides and acts of terrorism. Words hurt Femke. Herbers lets us see that, lets us root for her revenge. Yet whilst in her working life she delivers speeches about the awfulness of censorship, privately she's ready to enforce her own form of censorship with hammers, knives, shotguns and whatever comes to hand.

The magic of Ivo van Aart's film, one of the big hitters at this year's Fantasia, lies in its balance. It's very easy to root for Femke despite her hypocrisy, despite the risk that she's killing the wrong people (perhaps a little dig at journalists who are not thorough enough with their research). Everyone who has ever been targeted by the kind of hate she faces online will feel a surge of joy as she pulls out a garrote, even if they're horrified at the same time. On the other hand, van Aart never makes it easy for her. Even the most unlikeable of her victims has some humanity, or a family who will be left uncomprehending. Femke shows increasingly little concern for her own family. What starts as revenge quickly becomes a hobby, satisfying some other need. She's unhinged, and that's as ugly as it is glorious.

In an around Herbers' towering central performance, other issues emerge. Her daughter is dealing with censorship at school, raising questions around the need for authority and where power should lie. Her boyfriend's playful approach to being stereotyped, whilst it seems much healthier, may mean he's simply overlooked the vulnerabilities it gives him. And of course, all this targeting of individuals does absolutely nothing to resolve the deeper problems of a society in which rape threats can be inspired by whimsy about soft boiled eggs.

This is a story in which the centre cannot hold. Power stems from attention, and attention, it seems, can only be acquired by going to extremes. Femke's publisher wants a scandal to help sell her next book. The columnist elicited a little bit of real controversy in the past when she wrote about the Dutch folk character Zwarte Piet. The way that issue is raised briefly, comically, and then dismissed will remind viewers who are paying attention that the tradition continues despite concerns about racism; it hasn't faded from the headlines because the controversy is over but just because it's old news. A hungry public demands fresh outrage.

Elegantly framed and beautifully shot throughout, shifting easily between the bright, clean interiors that shelter the commentariat and the murky world of the horror film, The Columnist is as seductive and as playful as it is discomfiting. It's a much needed contribution to a public conversation which frequently refuses to admit nuance at all, and it stands on its own as a thrilling piece of entertainment.

Reviewed on: 15 Aug 2020
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The Columnist packshot
Columnist and author Femke is flooded with anonymous nasty messages and death threats on social media. One day she has enough and decides to take revenge.

Director: Ivo van Aart

Writer: Daan Windhorst

Starring: Genio de Groot, Katja Herbers, Rein Hofman, Bram van der Kelen

Year: 2019

Runtime: 86 minutes

Country: Netherlands


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