Antonia’s Line (1995 Netherlands/Belgium/UK 102mins)
Source: NLA/CAC Prod Co: Antonia’s Line International, Antonia’s Line, A Bergen, Prime Time, Bard Entertainments, NPS Televisie Prod: Hans de Weers, Gerard Cornelisse, Hans de Wolf Dir, Scr: Marleen Gorris Phot: Willy Strassen Ed: Michiel van Couwelaar, Olivier de Laveleye Art Dir: Harry Ammerlaan Mus: Ilona Sekacz
Cast: Willeke van Ammelrooy, Els Dottermans, Dora van der Groen, Veerle van Overloop.
In Marlene Gorris’ first feature film, A Question of Silence (1984), three women, complete strangers to each other, murder the male proprietor of a women’s boutique. It is an undeclared act of retribution by the oppressed in the ever present war of men against women, a violent acknowledgement, exposure of and reaction against the all pervasive inequality between the sexes which structures the lives of these ordinary women, defining each of them in terms of their service to men. The crime for which the proprietor is ‘punished’ is that he is a male agent of the patriarchal system.
Antonia’s Line returns to these feminist themes of female justice, judgement and retribution in a very different style of film. There are moments of great drama and tragedy here but one remembers most of all its lyrical, pastoral beauty, compassionate humour and tenderness. The ugly side of conventional heterosexual and familial relationships, which includes the extremes of rape and paedophilia as well as the more normal inequalities and repressions associated with marriage, is balanced against a range of idyllic alternatives which positively redefine sexual ‘deviances’ in the film’s vision of a truly human community based on the values of love, acceptance, diversity and equality. These values and justice are articulated together under Gorris’ direction: most particularly through the idealized matriarchal figure of Antonia (Willeke Van Ammelrooy), a woman whose family extends beyond her female lineage to embrace also a troupe of cast-offs and misfits from the village. In the new social order gradually created by Antonia’s influence over years and generations, justice is freed from the institutions – particularly the Church – which have failed to protect, or even to recognize, the innocent half-wit, the vulnerable child, the desperate mother; to punish, or even to name, the insensitive father, the brutal son, the hypocritical priest; to love, to celebrate, to respect the processes of life and living.
Male violence is announced as a theme very early in the film, through the ravings and rage of Antonia’s mother (Dora Van der Groen) and Antonia’s explanation to Danielle (Els Dottermans) that her father was a dirty old man. This old woman’s rage has continued for 30 years beyond her husband’s death. Antonia realizes that her mother can have no peace, even in death. Entering the story at this point, just in time to inherit the powerful gift of her dying mother’s curse, Antonia becomes an avenging character, almost by default (she has no mission as such). She, along with her daughter Danielle, rather than the Americans, are the actual liberators of the village, symbolically announced by the banner – ‘Welcome Liberators’ – which forms the background of Antonia’s first appearance on the screen. Where her mother’s rage was powerless, though loud, Antonia effectively delivers justice to the agents of violence, especially sexual violence, in the community to which she has returned.
An early incident which establishes Antonia’s status as Avenging Angel sees her punishing a young boy for slinging a rock at the village idiot, Loony Lips (Jan Steen), who is pushing a wheelbarrow behind a farmer’s cart. Antonia sees and judges the action, descends on the boy who is smirking behind the bushes with his conspirators, and hangs him by his coat-collar from a tree branch. It is a light, comical scene, ending with Loony Lips turning to follow Antonia, his new ‘master’, deaf to the indignant shouts of the farmer he was serving. Antonia’s justice is swift, unequivocal, in proportion. It is also not blind. It sees context: the oppressive master in the boy’s prank; the inequality between poor degraded Loony Lips – the exploited village joke – and the socially sanctioned gang of boys. Having punished the wrong-doer she also rescues the wronged. Loony Lips is only the first in a long list of assorted loonies who are offered refuge and freedom by Antonia: Deedee (Elsie de Brauw), a young retarded woman who has been repeatedly, endlessly raped by her brother Pitte (Phillip Peeters); Letta (Wimie Wilhelm), an unmarried woman addicted to the pleasure of being pregnant but unable to find support for her indulgence; the priest (Dirk Zeelenberg) who can no longer tolerate his vows of chastity and the prohibitions against pleasure imposed by the Church; Crooked Finger (Mil Seghers), gloom-ridden casualty of World War 2 (the essential context for the film’s utopian projection of harmonious community); all find a place in which they can express and fulfil their potentials under the benign reign of Antonia, a woman who takes her cue from the cycle of the seasons, ‘nature giving birth to nothing but itself’, the repetitive waxing and waning of the moon, universal female symbols of fertility.
Antonia’s power to judge, punish and rescue is most severely tested in the case of her granddaughter’s rape. Pitte, already appropriately punished by Danielle for the rape of his sister Deedee (catching him in the act she stabbed him through the hands – covering his genitals – with a pitchfork), has taken his cowardly revenge through this attack on Danielle’s daughter, Therese. Antonia takes a rifle. She resembles a frontier character, taking the law into her own hands, storming into the male world of the bar, taking aim and shooting at Pitte’s table, forcing him to take her outrage seriously. But she does not shoot him, she says it is an act she cannot commit. Instead she curses him with the most imaginative, venomous, curses at her command. It is her own mother’s curse, but more directed and controlled. The curse is traditionally, through fairy-tale and myth, associated with woman through the figure of the witch. Antonia is given the full weight of this mythical power, but, unlike in fairy-tale, she is on the side of the good, the social order, the family (though these terms are all reconfigured in the film as not patriarchal). And there is nothing magical, nor hysterical, about her potent curse: it is motivated, realistic, measured. It carries the force of the law. This is woman pronouncing the sentence of the law. Pitte knows this. He backs away. The young men of the village know this too. They execute the sentence, circling around the guilty man and almost ritualistically delivering the physical punches and kicks which bring Pitte to the ground. It is a stunning cinematic scene, inverting one of the most abiding principles of the gendered screen – that men rescue (or punish) women. Antonia is not only represented as a powerful woman in her own right: she also inspires men to become agents of her matriarchal law. But there is a limit to her power. There is no undoing what has happened to Therese (Verle Van Overloop). She suffers, as do all those who love her. As do all victims of war.
Always mindful of the inhumanities of the human race, Crooked Finger, seeing only death, commits suicide. He did not know the value of his life. After all the grief – there have been other losses too, other deaths, and her own is imminent – Antonia pronounces her judgement. She tells Deedee, “Well, there’s nothing for it, life’s got to be lived.” At which the two grey haired women stiffly urge their tired bodies up from their chairs. The voice over, consonant with Antonia’s philosophy, reinforces the sentiment: “life wants to live”. Antonia accepts that life contains death and grief; but knows also that death nourishes new seeds of life. It is in the context of this vision of endlessly interconnected lives and unceasing cycles of birth and death that Antonia’s law finds its just expression.