Dutch dark comedy is not as clever as it thinks it is
“Full of shit! You are a Disgrace to Womanhood!”
“Mad feminists, you humiliate American men and the whole world is watching.”
“Perhaps it’s just about time for you to do the world a favor and commit suicide.”
This isn’t dialogue from The Columnist, it’s just a sampling of the lovely emails I regularly receive, being a female writer with public opinions. So maybe you’ll understand why this Dutch horror-comedy, in which a newspaper columnist goes full Patrick Bateman after reading the comments one too many times, piqued my interest. Alas, much like the authors of those emails, it’s not as clever as it thinks.
★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Ivo Van Aart
Written by: Daan Windhorst
Starring: Katje Herbers, Bram van der Kelen
Running time: 86 min
Single mom Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) has built a successful career as an opinion essayist. She lives in a lovely light-filled house, seems to eat a lot of yogurt, and rides her bike around everywhere, all in a very Netherlands-utopian kind of way. But increasingly, Femke finds herself obsessively doomscrolling profane comments from haters who lean heavily on the c-word.
“Why can’t we just have different opinions and be nice about it?” she rants in an appearance on a local talk show, where she locks horns with a famous Goth horror novelist (Bram van der Kelen) who mocks her outrage at hate speech. “I was just there to sell books,” he explains later, admitting that his real name is not, in fact, “Steven Death.” He turns out to be a real mensch under all that eyeliner, and they start dating. Meanwhile, Femke’s teenage daughter (Claire Porro), inspired by her proximity to two writers with careers built around provocation, is staging free-speech protests at her tony high school.
But Femke just can’t quit wading around in the dregs of social media. She goes to the police with her concerns, as the mean tweets include some death threats, and they mansplain to her that “it’s just the Internet. It isn’t real.” And so begins a wildly implausible campaign of revenge against her detractors. I’m not suggesting comic gore ought to be believable, but the notion that you’d be able to find the real names and addresses of Internet trolls, and that they’d be living in your neighborhood, feels lazy even for the genre.
For a while, though, her quest is good Tarantino-esque fun, and on what feels like a shoestring budget. Armed with a sack of gardening tools and apparently superhuman strength, Femke picks off her prey in creative ways. (All of which, for what it’s worth, are cartoonishly over-the-top. No torture-porn here.) She even takes human trophies to store in the freezer alongside the veggies.
Herbers is great in the role. She also bears a slight resemblance to Carey Mulligan, star of the somewhat similarly-inclined Promising Young Woman. The early vignettes where Femke surprises her targets, popping up in their dingy apartments, are delectably vicious. (And boy, if the comments and emails I got over my takedown of Hillbilly Elegy are any indication, can’t wait to see what kind of insightful commentary I get on this one!)
Ultimately, Femke’s crusade grinds into a sanctimonious point that had me suspecting this movie was directed, and probably also written, by a dude. I was right on both counts: Ivo van Aart directed, and Daan Windhorst wrote the screenplay. Instead of leaning into the campy pleasures to be had in an American Psycho or Serial Mom-style celebration of going bonkers, The Columnist juxtaposes the daughter’s free speech crusade with her mom’s blood-spattered campaign to silence her critics. The real enemy of freedom, it turns out, was the outraged feminist all along.