It’s no wonder the residents of the grotesque, unfinished housing development where Alex van Warmerdam has set his surreal comedy, “The Northerners,” are an unbalanced lot. The place is little more than a row of modern houses and a few shops on the edge of a forest somewhere in the Netherlands. Just to get to church, which is miles away, the residents must line up every Sunday morning to take a bus.
The film, set in 1960, follows the interactions of a group of the townspeople who become progressively more unstrung as the movie goes along. The local butcher, Jacob (Jack Wouterse), desperately desires his wife, Martha (Annet Malherbe), who finds him repulsive. Following the instructions of a religious statue, which comes to life when Jacob is not around, she refuses to eat. And as she wastes away, their home becomes a shrine in front of whose picture window the neighbors gather in a silent prayer vigil.
The couple are so caught up in their own troubles that they ignore those of their 12-year-old son, Thomas (Leonard Lucieer). Inspired by news coverage of the struggle for Congolese independence, the boy likes to paint his face black, call himself Lumumba, after the Congolese prime minister, and spend hours alone in the forest. It is there that he meets Agnes (Veerle Dobbelaere), a half-naked woman who lives at the bottom of a pond and shows him how to breathe under water by sucking on the blade of a certain plant.
Duel in the sun (almost )
The butcher’s next-door neighbors, Anton (Rudolf Lucieer) and Elisabeth (Loes Wouterson), also have marital problems. The persnickety, gun-crazed Anton, upon learning that he is infertile, has no interest in making love to his beautiful and adoring wife. Armed with a rifle, he regularly visits the forest looking for signs of an illegal bonfire.
Keeping an eye on everyone is the local mailman, Simon (Mr. van Warmerdam), who likes to go into the forest, build a forbidden fire and open everyone’s mail with the steam from a tea kettle. Adding further complications are two Belgian priests who visit the community, bringing with them an exhibition of Africana. One of the exhibits is a “real Negro” (Dary Some), who hides in the forest after Thomas helps him escape from his cage.
“The Northerners” is a darkly amusing satire of bourgeois life and its repressions, executed with visual and dramatic flair. If its imagery, right down to its Freudian forest of libidinous fantasies, seems terribly obvious, its plot machinations are still fun to follow.
The director and the actors, who play their roles broadly, obviously relish spoofing small-town life and its simmering pressures. There are moments when the film suggests Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” reinvented in the Netherlands of 1960 as a surreal sideshow of voyeurs, fetishists and eccentrics.
The show the Belgian priests bring to the town is really an exhibition within an exhibition. For the overriding premise of the film is the notion of human nature and its quirks as something to be observed as though under glass. The attitude with which the director pulls the strings is as amused and prankish as Shakespeare’s Puck perched in a tree crowing, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”