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BLACK NIGHTS 2021 Competition

Review: Nr. 10

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- Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam returns with a characteristically disturbing and unclassifiable film

Review: Nr. 10

One of the unsaid rules of commercial narrative cinema is that it should possess plausibility, yet another seemingly contradictory one is that a film should surprise its audience. Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam plays with both impulses in his beguiling Nr. 10, which premiered in the Official Competition of this year’s Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, to equally confounding and exciting effect.

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The film begins as a rather small-scale drama, centring on the interpersonal dynamics between members of an acting troupe as they rehearse for their upcoming performance. Günter (Tom Dewispelaere) lives alone, and his routine involves being picked up every day by some of his other colleagues in their car to go to the theatre. Immediately striking is the seriousness of everyone involved and the lack of warmth between all of the characters: they evolve in a sterile atmosphere brimming with low-level bitterness, which appears to be echoed in the very play they are rehearsing. Scenes of everyday aggression, disagreements and conflict make up the core of the drama they all enact every day, and the carefully constructed, still compositions by cinematographer Tom Erisman as well as the sharp, incisive editing by Job ter Burg contribute to building a sober and cold world made up of sharp edges and robotic interactions.

Taking on the structure of an ensemble drama, the film follows in turns Günter, his middle-aged colleague Marius (Pierre Bokma), the director of the play, Karl (Hans Kesting), and his wife, Isabel (Anniek Pheifer), who is also a performer in the play. This is how we learn that Marius’ wife is very ill and keeps him up at night, making it difficult for him to learn his lines, and that Günter and Isabel are having an affair. All elements point to a straightforward relationship drama, save for the film’s surgically precise visual style and the characters’ deadpan approach to everything. Adding to the sense of foreboding is the unexplained presence of a man spying on Günter from his car, the strange behaviour of Günter’s own daughter Lizzy (Frieda Barnhard), the random fact that she apparently only has one lung, and the knowledge that Günter is an orphan who was found alone in a forest.

Things take a more decisive turn for the weird when a stranger on a bridge stops Günter to whisper a bizarre word in his ear. The event appears to trigger something in the actor who, after a violent altercation with Marius, leaves town. From this moment on, the film itself abandons the theatre, its actors and its director completely: they are never to be seen again. The impression then is of being completely in the dark; the signs which had allowed us to make assumptions about the film’s genre and therefore about what may occur in it have all vanished, and Nr. 10 is at its most exciting in these few moments before it eventually returns to more predictable territory. Günter follows the clues left by the strange men who were spying on him because he is told they will help him learn more about his mother. The place where he ends up and the revelation about his origins are completely unexpected, but the movie does not play up the sensational quality of this news at all, leaving us to decide whether we buy it or not. In fact, the calm reactions from Günter and Lizzy and the film’s own unchangingly straightforward style seem to purposefully undermine narrative expectations. But on a less conceptual level, they could also reflect a world in which characters are so aware of how little they really know, that nothing really surprises them.

In presenting a world where anything can happen but nothing is truly unexpected, van Warmerdam appears intent on undermining the usual rules of storytelling. Whether this very odd film is just a filmmaking exercise, or also doubles as a treatise on our modern-day reality where common sense and verisimilitude no longer hold and conspiracy theories seem more likely than ever, seems a question that van Warmerdam would rather let the audience mull over themselves.

Nr. 10 was produced by the Netherlands’ Graniet Film and Belgium’s Czar Film & TV Brussels. The Dutch distribution is handled by Cinéart Netherlands B.V, and the picture is sold internationally by Nine Film.

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