Over stepping the line

Dutch film director Marleen Gorris's subversive movie, 'A Question of Silence', won her the radical feminist label. Her latest, 'Antonia's Line', has won her an Oscar. So much for the feelgood factor. By Helen Birch
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"Everyone loves a winner. For a day you're treated like a queen. It's so ridiculous. Either you sit back and enjoy it, or you think, what a waste, I could have made 20 films with all the money that's being thrown about. So I decided to enjoy it." When the Dutch director Marleen Gorris got the call from Tinseltown informing her that her touching feminist fable, Antonia's Line, was shortlisted for an Oscar (which it went on to win), her first response was to laugh. "I mean, I could never have made Antonia's Line out there. Imagine trying to get all those executives to do a film by an unknown person, about an old woman looking back on her life. 'Who needs that?' they'd say. 'And what do you mean she dies at the end? What, are you crazy?'"

Compromise, or at least the kind of compromises Hollywood demands of its film-makers, is not something 48-year-old Gorris takes kindly to. "Hollywood always thinks it knows what people want, and it may be true that they want happy endings," she says. "But do they really want them so much that they'll accept anything? That's what's wrong with so many Hollywood films, they think they are catering to people's taste. But they aren't even catering to taste."

Since her first feature, A Question of Silence (1982), a subversive and darkly witty thriller about three very different women who have never met, but who, for no apparent reason, murder a man they don't know, which attracted plaudits and controversy in equal measure, Gorris has, not entirely unwillingly, hidden her light under a radical feminist bushel.

Many women loved Silence because it made no concessions. It offered up a world view that you either identified with or you simply didn't get at all. When the three women stand up in court and are asked by a perplexed male judge if they consider their crime to be commensurate with three men killing a woman, they burst out laughing. For female audiences, it was a salutary cinematic moment; while they shared the joke and joined in the laughter, many critics responded with incomprehension. Broken Mirrors, released two years later, was an altogether bleaker and more visceral study of sexual violence through two parallel stories - of the daily routines of a brothel, and of a man who kills women. The remainder of Gorris's work, a film about survivors of an air crash on a tropical island, and a five-part TV series, has not been seen outside Holland.

But, all credit to the Academy, the Oscar should change that. Gorris is in London to film Virginia Woolf's stream-of-consciousness novel, Mrs Dalloway, which will be set mainly in and around Woolf's old haunt of Fitzroy Square. Like Antonia's Line, it is a modest-budget, international co-production, but while, without the Oscar, Antonia's Line had every possibility of remaining, as Gorris puts it, "yet another obscure Dutch film", this has the allure of two theatrical grande dames, Eileen Atkins (who wrote the script) and Vanessa Redgrave (in the title role). "To be honest, I don't think anyone would have called and asked me to do Mrs Dalloway just because of my blue eyes and my talent," Gorris laughs. "What mattered was that they could go back to the financiers and say, she's got an Oscar." None the less, when we meet, a financial wrangle has temporarily halted filming. Gorris shrugs. She's used to this. Antonia's Line took seven years to make, and since the early Eighties, when the beneficence of the Dutch government enabled the rookie director to make Silence on the strength of her script ("they let me learn everything on the set; and, you have to remember, feminism wasn't such a dirty word then"), finding backing for full-length features has been a constant headache.

Not that Gorris is didactic. In person, she has a nice line in sardonic humour; in her films she uses cross-cutting and flashback to link the different protagonists, creating a world that has its own, often surreal logic. Antonia's Line is her best and most accessible film yet, and in it Gorris recasts some of her familiar themes - violence, oppression, the invisibility of so many women's lives - through an extended family saga that has the fantastical charm and light and shadow of a fairytale. In many ways, it's an inversion of Hollywood sagas from Giant to Legends of the Fall: "I wanted to give women a role that they are usually denied in family chronicles," she says. "To give them interesting lives in themselves. And I'm not that fond of realism. There's something strange in all my films, although their feet, if you can say that, are firmly in something like reality.

"A Question of Silence and Broken Mirrors were definitely of their time," she muses. "Both were about women in a male-dominated society who had a place in it they were not happy with. Antonia is a woman who finds her place in more or less that same society - because, after all, it hasn't changed much - but who says, here I am, and you'd better like me. Antonia forces people round to her view without steamrolling them, and without violence."

The film is told in flashback: as Antonia, the beatific matriarch of a village in the Catholic part of Holland, prepares to die, she recalls her return there as a widow at the end of the war. For reasons which are never explained, as so much in the film is left unsaid, she decides to stay, and the village decides to tolerate her. Independent and unsentimental, Antonia gently takes charge of its oddball inhabitants, turning the place into a pastoral utopia. She turns down a proposal from a widowed farmer who hopes she will be a mother to his sons, on the grounds that she doesn't need a husband, but then has a long relationship with him anyway. When her daughter decides to have a baby on her own, she helps her find an obliging (and suitably handsome) sperm donor. And so, in the manner of a modern moral fable, punctuated by births and funerals, moments of magical realism and ironic, funny epithets on life, death and the passing of the seasons, another daughter is born to continue Antonia's Line.

Perhaps inevitably, coming from a country that is busy licking its own sexual-political wounds, some American critics have taken the film literally. "Where are the positive male role models?" they cry, and point to a single character, a boorish farmer's son who rapes Antonia's granddaughter, as a pantomime demon. Antonia stops short of shooting the man, leaving the task of bumping him off to his younger brother, whose own motive, in claiming his brother's inheritance for himself, is pretty murky too. "If they think that's men-bashing," quips Gorris crisply, "they should have seen my other films. They are all a metaphor. And yes, in some ways, the film is simplistic, but it's about what people do, not why they do it. I didn't set out to make a psychological study."

But that's exactly the challenge she's set herself with Mrs Dalloway, bringing the dense, internal world of a single protagonist to a medium that depends on drama and visual references for its power. How will she do it? Another shrug. "The script uses a lot of voiceover. It won't be an easy film." But it will, at the very least, have taste.

'Antonia's Line' goes on general release on Friday

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