Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
Gruyaert (screenplay, based on a novel by Stijn Streuvels), Jan Gruyaert
(director) De vlaschaard (The Flaxfield) / 1983, USA 1985
a grim, slow-moving story, Jan Gruyaert’s excellent film makes up for it with a
series of beautiful images. True, as New
York Times critic Vincent Canby noted in his 1985 review, the images
portrayed are almost all predictable: the muddy fields, the waving flax,” tight
close-ups of the creatures that inhabit the earth - ants, worms, snails,
grasshoppers.” But given the world that the old farmer Vermeulen (Vic Moeremans),
his son Louis (Rene van Sambeek), and Vermeulen’s wife Barbele (Dora van der
Groen) inhabit—a world that absolutely depends on predictability—how else might
the director conveyed the film’s truth?
The farmers of Flanders determine
everything by pattern, by detecting the gradual shift of the soils, the
fairness of winds, the growing movement of insects to know when to sow their
crop. But in the particular year which this film recounts, old Vermeulen has
suddenly become unpredictable, refusing the sow his crop on the higher ground
his devoted son suggests and waiting beyond the time other locals have already planted.
Vermeulen is a hard task-master, a
cold-hearted authoritarian who has reached an agreement with his wife that he is
always right. Louis has come of age, and is suddenly a handsome, vivacious
young man who should long ago been awarded for his obedience and diligence a
least a hand in controlling the farm. Like an Old Testament figure, however,
Vermeulen detests the very intelligence and sensuality of the boy, particularly
the young man’s infatuation with a working girl living on the farm, Schellebelle
Schellebelle is everything that the Vermeulen family is not;
light-hearted, almost radiant in her appearance, somewhat of a flirt, she is
the very manifestation of youth and joy. For Vermeulen, accordingly, she
represents the devil himself. As Louis becomes more and more involved with
her—innocent as that relationship is—the old farmer grows more and more
troubled, finally determining to use his life’s savings to buy a neighbor’s
decaying farm for his son; he orders his wife to find an appropriate bride for
While Vermeulen is an auction, however,
the rains come, suggesting that it is time to harvest the flax before it is
destroyed. Louis, taking responsibility, orders the grain to be reaped. The
lovely scene in the fields is one of the most poignant in the work, ending with
a dance, Louis choosing Schellebelle as his partner.
Returning home, the old farmer is outraged that things have proceeded
without him, and, as the son moves toward the lovely maid, strikes his him down
with a hoe.
The horrifying last scene shows the boy
in a coma upon the bed, the old man sitting in a chair to attend him. Finally,
he has found a way to overcome and dominate the spirited youth once more.
Gruyaert tells this grim tale without any
of the sentimentality present in the original text. While that may distance his
audience, it has the effect, almost in a Brechtian manner, of allowing us to
more fully perceive the moral absurdity of Vermeulen’s cosmos. His struggle
with his son is an age-old story that gets played out in hundreds of tales and
analyzed on Freud’s couch. But in Gruyaert’s objective telling it suddenly
seems surprising fresh and is more horrific for that reason. Louis, never truly
disobedient but always well intended is destroyed for those very qualities. He
is unforgiven simply for being what he was raised to be, a loving and loyal
October 7, 2012
I should mention
that my Sun & Moon Press published a translation by Peter Glassgold and
Andre Leferve of Streuvel’s The Flaxfield in July 1989, as the third volume of my Sun & Moon Classics. The
work has long meant a great deal to me, and I hope one day soon to reprint it
into our Green Integer series.