For quite a few years, a belief held sway that bereavement consisted of a series of five – or was it seven? – stages, starting with shock and moving through to acceptance, after which you were more or less home free. Of course, no human emotion runs so smoothly, grief least of all. The various members of the family in Martijn de Jong’s Narcosis feel anger, anguish and denial by turns and sometimes simultaneously, each of them cocooned in their own sac of misery, unable to say what they feel, even to themselves. Grief here is as messy and resistant to resolution as it is in real life.
John, the paterfamilias (Fedja van Huet) was a professional diver. He was adventurous, eccentric and the fun parent; the last thing he brought home was an old telephone box, which he set up under the trees surrounding their rustically crumbling house. As the narrative wanders between past, present and the imaginary, we learn a good deal about this house: how John and his wife Merel (Thekla Reuten) bought it as a shell and have been fixing it ever since, how they slept in the garden under the stars before it was habitable and, once it was, how they lay in bed conjuring pictures out of the damp patches on the ceiling.
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These scenes are Merel’s shining memories; we know before we come to them that John has died on a dive in South Africa, trying to get to the bottom of one of the deepest underground lakes in the world. A year later, their son Boris (Sepp Ritsema) is still wearing his father’s watch and secretly practices submersion in a local pond, holding a large rock to his chest, in the hope of one day retrieving his dad’s body. Their daughter Ronje (Lola van Zoggel) tells her new friend in kindergarten how her father dives for a living. She rings him every night from the garden phone box. In her little world, he is still alive.
Meanwhile, Merel is fending off the bank; the house may have to be sold. That’s another thing she can’t tell anyone, especially the children. She is furious with the bank, furious with the insurance company, furious with John. Her anger surges and recedes like the tide, forming a thread through a film that is less like a journey through grief than a constant circling within it. Images fade into each other as they do in dreams or alight on details: a hand clutching the edge of the table, a sudden gust of wind in the treetops. Anyone expecting a conventional story will find Narcosis frustratingly meandering and unreasonably extended – not to mention unremittingly melancholy – but perhaps that’s in the nature of the subject.
There is a curiosity at the heart of this film, however, that is genuinely surprising: Merel’s second sight. Before John dies, she works from home as a clairvoyant; the bereaved come to her with objects left by loved ones that prompt visions of their past. Eyes closed, she tells one man how she sees him as a shy boy, another woman that her little sister liked to play games. Things anyone might say, although there is no suggestion she is a fraud; Martijn de Jong’s mother claims a similar gift and, although he says he doesn’t believe in it, he doesn’t think she is conning anyone. He wrote the script with his partner Laura van Dijk, who has admitted that Martijn’s mother fascinates her. They have discussed it at length.
When John dies, however, Merel simply walks away from her gift, preferring to get a job in a spa rather than risk seeing him in a nether world; like the proverbial physician, she cannot heal herself. We may only guess at her reasons; her trepidation is shown rather than explained. None of it is explained, in fact, but it is this undercurrent of strangeness – actually a minor aspect of the character – that gives the film some spice, raising implicit questions about what we think about when we think about death.
All this could easily register as weak or unbelievable, but the great Thekla Reuten has such a formidable ability to convey a complexity of emotions that she can convince us of anything. The expression on her face, raised to the sky in one of de Jong’s complicated shots showing the world upside down, shifts and drifts as if reflecting the rolling Dutch clouds. Yes, you think, sadness looks like this – and now this and, perhaps, this too. And maybe she can see the dead. Even in the moments when Narcosis seems to be living up to its title, it always feels true.
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