Frans Zwartjes is a very peculiar, extraordinary filmmaker. His film all seem to exist completely disconnected from the real world. While this can probably be assumed to partially be due to the fact that he almost exclusively shoots interiors, the few times that his camera deviates into the outside world, his unique lens still shows the world in utter disconnect. I spent a weekend watching 14 of his films (thirteen shorts and one feature), and at the end I felt like I had experienced the uncanny. Often times while viewing a Zwartjes film one gets the feeling that they're not supposed to be watching this, that their act of viewing is transcending simple voyeurism and actually attaining violation. And this is why Zwartjes is amazing.
Living was my introduction to Zwartjes, and to this day it remains not only my favorite Zwartjes film, but also one of the best films that I've ever seen. The film introduces a simple concept: Frans and Trix, Frans' wife and muse, walk around their freshly painted, empty living room of the house they have just moved into. Using cheap miniatures they arrange furniture on a floor plan, crawl on the floor, and aimlessly look around. And that is the entirety of the action in the film.
But what makes the film so powerful is the incredibly atmosphere. There is a large series of windows on one wall of the room, but Zwartjes exposes the film so the panes are filled with nothing but a sublime white, totally detaching the room from the outside world. The house could be located in outer space. This detachment extends the idea of Trix and Frans in utter isolation from the rest of the world. Zwartjes also shot the film with as wide of a wide-angle lens he could get without having to shoot a fish eye lens; and this simple extends the atmosphere of isolation that has already been established by the empty room and detached pervasiveness.
But what brings the film all together is the utterly brilliant soundtrack. Discordant, errant organ permeates the viewers ears as the ghostly pale faces of Trix and Frans wander. It's some of the most hauntingly beautiful music that I have ever heard in my entire life, and the affect that the score has on the images is utterly remarkable, and an utter testament to that inherent aspect of cinema, the marriage of sound with images.
With the uncanny mood of isolation, Zwartjes also manages to implode a remarkable sexual tension, which gets to briefly rear it's head via brilliant montage. The pace of the majority of the film is remarkably calm and studied, but several scenes explode into hyper-quick, very short cuts, of Trix' breasts and underwear as she lounges around the empty space. Zwartjes himself remains stoic in his hushed countenance, constantly biting down on a handkerchief as he continues to examine the space around him, occasionally glancing fetishistically at his wife.
Gaston Bachelard, in his Poetics of Space, remarks that "[...] it [is] reasonable to say we 'read a house,' or 'read a room,' since both room and house are psychological diagrams that guide writers and poets in their analysis of intimacy." With Living, Zwartjes not only reads the room himself, but allows the viewer to do the same. Within the utter isolation, an obsessive relation between Frans and Trix is utterly apparent. These rooms not only keep the outside world from spilling in, but also keeps lust and obsession from spilling out.
Aside from everything else, it's worth noting just how beautiful Zwartjes' aesthetics are. It's not something that's unique to this film, but it's one of the most amazing films to look at out of the films of Zwartjes' that I've been lucky enough to see. Zwartjes develops his own film which allows him to push and pull his film in order to saturate his images in a singular way. The frame is permeated with blinding whites, grayish blue hues, the deepest greens, and every so often, a shockingly intrusive red. The color palate itself adds to the overwhelming abject sense of the uncanny in the most beautiful way. Not only are the colors wonderful, but the camera work is an amazing feat in itself. All of the film is shot by Zwartjes himself, and Zwartjes himself is in the frame for most of the film. His shots are hand held, and he handles the camera in disorienting swooping motions so well; there's not a shake to be found.
It's no surprise, given the power of the film, that Zwartjes himself calls it his favorite. It's an unmatched examination of architecture and physical space representing a poetic emotional state, and it's a testament to a personalized sense of aesthetics.