It has to be the most Dutch scene in a recent Dutch film: the one where Iris (Julia Akkermans) and her brother have already put stickers on their father’s house to be divided, in Pink Moon. A father who wants to celebrate his 75th birthday with euthanasia, even though he is still healthy. Our practical, liberal and unpretentious national character captured on film. And of course there are the few things that both kids stick their stickers on.
During the screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where Floor van der Meulen’s feature film (33) had its world premiere earlier this summer, there was a lot of laughter. And afterwards there were the questions for the filmmaker: is it really the case or is it made up? “Yes indeed,” I said. And not only when someone dies: even if we get divorced, we Dutch will also put stickers on them. It is something very Dutch, I feel that now when I show my film in other countries. In Mexico, a boy also asked about it afterwards: what about those stickers? But the humor of the scene was well expressed: such a feud between brother and sister is also something universal. And of course there were questions about the legal side, especially in New York: is it allowed in your place? Euthanasia is seen there as a very Dutch thing.’
Is your film about euthanasia?
“No, not really, I think. Rather about a fulfilled life, which is different from euthanasia. And the film is told from Iris’ perspective: it’s her experience and her reaction to her father’s wish. A coming-of-age story about a woman at the beginning of The 30s, who must break free from his family.’
Anyone monitoring Van der Meulen’s film career could conclude that it is shooting in all directions. Graduated from the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam with a poetic short film, and at the time a widely distributed guest with his NPO documentary Stormers of paradise, where she was one of the first Dutch TV producers to delve deeper into Syrians and their loved ones. So winner of the award for best European short film with 9 days: From my window in Aleppodirected with Thomas Vroege and Issa Touma. Back to fiction with her TV drama in freedom, with a golden calf for the actress Nazmiye Oral. Saw a full-length documentary about the very last northern white rhino, The last man on earth. And now her feature film debut, about contemporary Iris.
Is there a line, from Syrian migrants and white rhinos to the wandering 30-something Iris?
‘Hmm. Earlier today a journalist pointed out to me that all my work is related to impermanence, mortality and death. More than I realized, actually. And where does it come from? I don’t have an immediate answer to that. There is a certain fascination with violence, both in documentary and in fiction: what we do to each other. Inability to also see through the other.
“More than the other films, which were also about mortality or impermanence, are Pink Moon based on a personal fear of mine: that your parents die. As a child I dreamed that they were no longer there, real nightmares that often returned. And when I passed 30, I suddenly realized: shit, they’re getting old. That, like Iris in the film, you still want to catch your father before he slips away from you. Who is that man? What if that dad suddenly seems to want out? That’s how the idea for a film was born.
‘I got in touch with the screenwriter Bastiaan Kroeger through my producer and we clicked straight away. Bastiaan has a similar relationship with his father, another taciturn and somewhat inscrutable man. It’s a whole generation, I think.’
Is such an inscrutable father accompanied by an inscrutable mother?
‘In my case, yes. I have a rather present and domineering mother who did not fall for her mouth. That was also why my father fell for her, he once told me’.
After Rutger Hauer’s sudden death, what she had in mind for the father role and for whom she Pink Moon had already sent, the part went to Johan Leysen, the Fleming with the face of a Roman emperor in the autumn of his life.
‘If you’re looking for a Dutch actor in the 70s, the pool isn’t that big. Johan has something definite about him, that cannot be tampered with. It is a difficult role: the father hardly evaluates. How do you stay somewhat likable? And then his living face with the bright blue eyes. Eyes that radiate life. During the filming, Johan was sometimes diametrically opposed to the character he plays.’
I read that he thought the father in the movie was a dick?
‘If we turned and I cried cut, he walked away from the set. A little later I found him outside, smoking. And mutters to himself: Damn, what an asshole, why does he do that? So I caught him a few times. Johan also has children himself. He could not understand the choice of his character. It also shows how phenomenal Johan is as an actor: He can play a role that completely contradicts himself.’
Are we Dutch good at dying?
‘No, I think not. I just got back from Mexico, where people have a very different relationship with death than we do. Death does not mean from there immediately. You can still talk or drink with the spirits of your ancestors, this is completely normal. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing with us, but the funerals or cremations that I’ve been through, I often found them completely uncomfortable, with that piece of cake and a script like that. It is also typically Dutch: that we structure it completely, so as not to get lost in the emotions. My parents-in-law are Surinamese, a funeral that is very different: everyone comes in white, there is singing.’
Unlike usual in many Dutch films, Iris does not have to Pink Moon now not to get a husband.
‘Nice isn’t it? So cute! We toyed with the idea: would she have a boyfriend? And if not, is she that pathetic? Is that how you see her? But then I thought: crap, as if you couldn’t have a good life without a relationship. It’s one of the images we’ve all created together that women in their thirties without a man are pathetic or desperate.
‘The funny thing is: it was only after I started making films myself that I realized how much that perspective of the woman was missing. That is changing now, fortunately. Although they are still often of these useful roles. Or you see that one hysterical woman again. But now I say ‘hysterical woman’ and at the same time think: women have feelings too. Why do we even label it hysterical? And not with a man?
‘As a woman, you can be guilty of this too: female filmmakers just as well grew up with all those films by men and the male gaze. You can also look or direct with that look, it’s so deep. I’m starting to pay attention to it when I watch movies. Is it just the bottom of the woman in the picture or the man’s as well?
Scarlett Johansson’s buttocks in that opening shot of Lost in translationit is very bad male gaze. But why shouldn’t you? And what if that image is important to the story Sofia Coppola wants to tell? There is a blowjob scene in it Pink Moon where the response is very varied. Some women find it extremely misogynistic, other women say: yes! It’s not dirty or humiliating either, just something women can enjoy too. Women suck, that’s what they do. So I thought, as a female filmmaker: it just has to be in my film.’
Seeking women in their thirties have been popping up more often in movies lately.
‘Yes, last year The worst person in the world and Cabin No. 6. Very good female characters. Interesting that we’re all into this, I thought when I saw them. When you think of the coming-of-age genre, you think of teenagers, whereas I have the idea that these days thirty is the coming-of-age. When I watch those films, I also think: maybe there just wasn’t as much attention in the past for the female perspective, for women making their voices heard. It is interesting that both The worst person in the world whose Cabin No. 6 was made by a man.’
What does it say?
Van der Meulen laughs. ‘That there is a generation of men who can relate well to women? Those movies show that to me. And hopefully now there will also be films by women portraying an interesting and layered male character, that would also be nice.’
Pink Moon, the 1972 song by Nick Drake of the title, cannot be heard in Floor van der Meulen’s feature film. It has a special meaning in the film: father Jan hums the melody, but he and daughter Iris cannot come up with the title. Drake’s relatives have been asked if the song could be used, but they preferred not to euthanize the singer-songwriter who died of an overdose. Van der Meulen: ‘It’s a good thing. The fact that you don’t hear the song fits the tone of the film: life doesn’t always offer an answer or a solution.’