Directed by: Ben Sombogaart | 100 minutes | drama, thriller | Actors: Halina Reijn, Tineke Caels, Wim Opbrouck, Michel van Dousselaere, Ron Cornet, Barbara Sarafian, Pallas van Boetzelaer, Michael Nierse, Monique van de Ven, Edwin de Vries, Brigitte Urhausen, Daniel Plier, Casper Grimbère, Ludo Hoogmartens, Eugenie Anselin, Isabelle Constantini, Jan Becaus, Hilbert Dijkstra, Tom de Hoog, Patrick Hastert, Norbert Rutili, René Mioch, Janine Abbring, Willem Quaries van Ufford, Thomas Cammaert, Anna Drijver, Jeff Manderveld
‘Isabelle’ (script based on Tessa de Loo’s novel of the same name) struggles stiffly through a fairly simple story. Every element in the film is spelled out so emphatically that no one can miss any of the current theme. This makes ‘Isabelle’ something of an instructive (dark) fairy tale by Ben Sombogaart, who successfully filmed another novel by De Loo: ‘The Twins’. But the people in ‘Isabelle’ relate to each other like the cogs of a clockwork, serving meaningful events that just won’t come to life. The attention for themes is so emphatic that ‘Isabelle’ somewhat neglects her other roles – such as drama, thriller. That ultimately disappoints, especially because the film looks good and manages to make you feel good with a suspenseful start.
‘Isabelle’ is about actress Isabelle (Halina Reijn). She is world famous in the Netherlands, as a red carpet scene with René Mioch makes clear. Just before the shooting of another new blockbuster, Isabelle decides to recharge herself in the pleasant Ardennes hamlet where her parents (Edwin de Vries, Monique van de Ven) have a house. She takes a glowing sunbath in the woods naked, and afterwards she drinks a Jupiler in the village pub. Isabelle, pearl in the midst of the swine, thinks it’s “great to be here” and shakes her hair, after which the bartender on duty places his hand covetingly on her cheek. The diners in the café don’t look at real life, but at an unblemished fantasy; on “the most desirable woman in the Netherlands”. From a distance, barmaid Jeanne also stares at Isabelle. The distance between them is more than geographical: Jeanne is ugly. Her left eye hangs listlessly, her nose bulges and her chin sways like a witch’s on a broomstick. There can probably be no misunderstanding about her appearance. In ‘Isabelle’ nothing is ambiguous anyway. Except, just now, the beauty of Isabelle. Halina Reijn plays the beauty herself, but we nevertheless see that her handsome appearance, like other mortals, takes effort. (It is said that Reijn herself initially auditioned for the role of her co-star.) While, according to the film, Jeanne is driven to despair by Isabelle’s enviable, almost indomitable beauty, who is not defined by something as vulgar as taste, or neglect.
The next meeting between Isabelle and Jeanne, deep in the forest, where Isabelle is sunbathing again, is immediately the most penetrating. Jeanne’s dull clothes and checkered dog (“George Clooney”, get it?) contrast with Isabelle’s disarming nudity. You can’t be more naked than Isabelle as a person. Nowhere in the film will the love triangle between cat, dog and mouse be played out so beautifully. While they will keep each other company for practically the entire movie, this meeting is no accident. Jeanne has come to fetch Isabelle, imprison, starve, and immortalize beautiful Isabelle’s decay and decay on canvas. And what does Isabelle do when that terrible truth dawns on her? She talks like a bridge man. As a schmier psychotherapist, as a patient full of self-pity. She takes all the time, even weeks. At the very least, a striking choice for someone who weakens easily. As if as a cat in death she decides not to take a strange jump, but a brisk walk. Because George Clooney is so scary.
Where Halina Reijn has to pose for Jeanne in an impossible position, actress Tineke Caels must have put herself in an emotional split to be able to play Jeanne. And not just because in a house that is at the mercy of transience (peeling paint, rusty taps) she still thinks about neatly stacking her collection of women’s magazines. Because as controlled, intelligent and sadistic as Jeanne appears in the first half hour, so insecure, naive, and dependent she drifts through the last half hour. The fact that this cover is not convincing is certainly not due to Caels, but it is due to the unconvincing way in which it is achieved: it is hard to believe that the oh so calculating Jeanne from behind her easel swallows what Isabelle is chewing for her. On Isabelle’s first attempt at emotional manipulation, Jeanne resolutely states that she sees through the game: “Rule one: make contact with the hostage-taker and show that you are human.” In the rest of the film, however, she seems to have completely forgotten about that lesson.
An important supporting role is played by the photographing schoolmaster Bernard (Wim Opbrouck, blank and phlegmatic) who develops a rather obligatory visualized fascination for Isabelle and at the same time sets up a quest that is anything but exciting. You can almost feel Bernard following the stage directions – like a wooden doll that has yet to find its soul. What breaks the characters, and the film, most is an accumulation of events that defy common sense. For example, an extensive police investigation into Isabelle’s disappearance takes place, but no detective comes up with the idea of questioning Jeanne. Jeanne’s statement: she’s too ugly to draw attention. Good news for those who think they live in a world in which strange ducks and black sheep stand out. Another moment: Even after weeks of starvation, Isabelle is still thinking about donning a pair of sky-high wedges on her first trip outside. Elsewhere, George Clooney finds himself entangled in a burning room. Suddenly owner Jeanne is so stressed that Isabelle has to help her growling guard out of the fire. It’s a scene so bumbling it wouldn’t look out of place in a Laurel & Hardy movie.