Thursday, May 21, 2015

Little Sister (Zusje) (1995)

Now who could've known a family home video would be so engrossing! While Lars Von Trier's Dogme 95 movement was underway in Denmark, Dutch filmmaker Robert Jan Westdijk was already experimenting with the handheld camera and natural setting and aesthetics for his debut feature, "Little Sister" (1995).

A camera obsessed Martijn (Romijn Conen) lands up at the doorstep of his 20 year old sister Daantje (Kim van Kooten) after several years. Daantje initially seems startled at Martijn's sudden arrival, but soon absorbs the shock, and goes on with life, with Martijn close on her heels all the time. He insists on keeping the camera on and focused on Daantje's every move, claiming he is making a movie on her. Filmed with a subjective camera, the narrative unfolds almost entirely from the point of view of Martijn. Thereby, "Little Sister" practically becomes the movie that Martijn is filming, even with title credits in the beginning attributed to Martijn and Daantje!

Time passes, and the loving brother-sister banter enters darker territory. The whole fixation on Daantje begins to shape into an uncomfortable, voyeuristic gaze, especially when some flashbacks, also conveyed by way of old family home videos, hint at a possible incestuous fling between the siblings.

Thanks to a strong premise, a crisp narrative and fluid editing, "Little Sister" rises above the experimental nature of it and provides for a wholly absorbing film experience. We are taken up, close and personal with Daantje, with Kim van Kooten occupying almost every frame. No complaints there, for she is arguably one of the most gorgeous women to ever grace celluloid. Only the feeling that we are looking at her through Martijn's eyes, somewhat creeps us out!

Although a little obfuscated about her brother's visit, Daantje initially takes all the camera craze in her stride. She doesn't seem to mind all the attention and is hardly camera conscious. Martijn, and hence, the camera follows Daantje everywhere, capturing everything, even on outings with her best friend. Gradually, the encroachment on her privacy seems to become a matter of concern, when Martijn begins to overstay his welcome, especially when Daantje's goofy boyfriend Ramon (Roeland Fernhout) arrives and feels uncomfortable with big brother around.

In an awesome display of restraint and mature character handling, Daantje however, exhibits mixed reactions. It is not clear whether she really wants her brother out or in. There is always an awkward sense of tension palpable between the siblings, even though we don't really see Martijn's face for the most part. Much of the conveying is done through Daantje's nuanced expressions and their exchange of words. Her mixed feelings about her brother's presence make a lot more sense later when the fog begins to clear to reveal the true nature of their relationship and what really transpired in the past. It is clearly a memory that Daantje wants to repress, while for some reason Martijn makes periodic attempts to remind her of it. Is it Martijn's sickness that is making him stir up the episode again? Or is there another side to it and Daantje doesn't want to remember?

Everything is balanced on a neatly ambiguous thread, while more twists and turns appear in adequate measures. Power shifts occur, control is transferred, perceptions are created, and then thwarted as the film proceeds towards a finale that is confounding as well as creepy. And while it doesn't answer everything in black and white, it surely shakes the foundation of our judgment thus far. One seemingly non-serious comment that Martijn keeps throwing about, also falls into place in a freaky way.

What's commendable is, despite some of the shocking, revolting elements of the story, much of the mood maintained is quite buoyant, especially with some comical moments revolving around Ramon. What happens on screen isn't exactly pleasant; a childhood innocence is lost, a brother-sister bond loses its way. Some of the happenings on screen are downright offensive, but astonishingly, nothing appears or gets really ugly in any way. You don't really walk out with a repulsed feeling.

"Little Sister" is a compelling watch that demands your attention. This is low-budget indie cinema at its finest. Forget those horror found footage films; this is the closest that fiction can get to reality.

Score: 9/10

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