Review of Narcosis: The Netherlands Oscar entry puts a sensitive spin on well-worn dramatic ground

Review of Narcosis: The Netherlands Oscar entry puts a sensitive spin on well-worn dramatic ground

In Narcosis, the specific limbo of grief—a perennially rich ground for drama—gets a clear treatment with a poetic twist. Writer-director Martijn de Jong injects a sense of mystery into a traditional template of family tragedy by tracing the effects of a deep-sea diver's passing on his wife and kids. The story's odd angles—ocean exploration and the explorer's widow's psychic abilities—are handled by de Jong with restraint, which is one of the movie's strongest points. The everyday assumes a subtle eeriness that reflects the unspoken grief of the bereaved.
De Jong’s debut film, scripted by him and his husband, screenwriter Laura van Dijk, recently premiered on home ground, at the Netherlands Film Festival, and has launched on the fest circuit, with dates in Thessaloniki and Cairo ahead. Although it could be too subdued to stand out in the contest for best foreign feature at the Academy Awards, its sensitive approach, evocative graphics, and excellent casting herald the entry of a gifted director.
The pre-title sequence gives viewers a peek of Merel, played by Thekla Reuten, and her marriage to the more impulsive John (Fedja van Huêt). She is upset about his upcoming trip to South Africa, where he will explore one of the deepest underwater caverns in the world. To her clenched-jawed dismay, he still hasn't packed, but he did find time to salvage a disused phone booth and install it on their land, delighting his children Boris (Sepp Ritsema) and Ronja (Lola van Zoggel) with this odd relic.

Merel's old car's hatchback still opens every time she starts the engine a year later, despite John's promise to fix it when he returned from his trip, and she is behind on her mortgage payments. But he never emerged from the Boesmansgat's watery depths. His body has not yet been located, and the insurance company is still looking into the matter. The movie's title, which also alludes to the intoxicating effects of nitrogen narcosis in deep-sea diving, suggests that Merel and the kids are each siloed off in pain and confusion, suspended in a sort of stupor. Unmoored by the devastating emptiness in their home, Merel and the kids carry on, but they are all siloed off in pain and confusion.

Everyone, including her son, assumes that Merel has used her psychic abilities to connect with John; this expectation is founded on the false notion that grief follows a certain course and lasts a certain amount of time. The truth is that she has repressed that aspect of herself because she is unable to accept John's passing. She now works the front desk of a tanning salon in the space where she once held sessions with people hoping to communicate with their dearly deceased loved ones. When she eventually goes back to work, the readings reflect her dread and loss.

The kids of Merel have retreated in various ways as well. The 10-year-old Boris is grumpy and uncommunicative with his mother, going to the lake nearby on his own to keep honing the underwater swimming skills John had been teaching him. DP Martijn van Broekhuizen captures the scenes of him practising the regimen with crystalline symmetry. As he throws ever-larger stones into the calm lake, Boris's little frame is infused with a sad resolve, chasing an athletic goal but truly following his father. Concentric circles ripple around him.

While this is going on, his younger sister talks to a new friend who is unaware of the events of the previous year about John in the present tense. Additionally, Ronja and her father have regular discussions in the phone booth he built among the woods as his final creative gesture before his disastrous expedition. These one-sided conversations show a child's struggle to make sense of the altered reality, rather than just being statements of denial and longing. When you hear John's voice on the family's answering machine and see how quickly Merel deletes messages from pals, there's something daring about her playacting.

Sjoerd (Vincent van der Valk), John's diving companion, is one of them. Merel finds Sjoerd's kindness, while real and motivated by guilt, to be oppressive. With unrepentant bluntness, she pushes him away, but she does so with more restraint than she does with the insurance claims adjuster, whose usual gestures of sympathy infuriate her.

The back-and-forth between Merel and the real estate agent is rather conventional, and the family's big, oddball old house serves as a recognisable symbol of their nonconformity (much like in the similarly subject Hold Me Tight by Mathieu Amalric). But the screenplay deftly transforms the home (in the Dutch village of Bilthoven) into a character without overdoing it by using flashbacks to show how Merel and John fell in love with the abandoned manse when they were falling in love with each other and how they brought it back to life.

Merel's memories have a natural power thanks to the calm connection between Reuten and van Huêt (who have worked together before on screen), and in his limited screen time, van Huêt makes John's unusual drive as an explorer and a certain equanimity regarding mortality quietly appealing. John's exploration itself is off-screen, save for a moving, almost abstract visual of his slide into complete darkness (with strong assistance from sound designer Jan Schermer).

The physical storm that appears at the end of Narcosis is the most predictable and unconvincing turn of events in the film—not because of the visuals or the frequently used and recognisable score, but rather because it is a blatant manifestation of the growing tension between the three survivors. The film's strengths lie in its frank blending of the paranormal and the everyday as well as its understated closeness.

Despite how captivating and subtle Reuten's acting is, her character's development would not be noteworthy if not for the psychic element. The children distinguish this story of loss. Ritsema and van Zoggel are not treated with contempt by Broekhuizen's deft camerawork, which treats each main character with delicate but never pompous care. They are captured in captivating close-up while assuming the roles of full-fledged characters and valiantly navigating disaster.

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