Love shines a light through the darkest of times... Carice van Houten stars in Love Life (2009)
Also known as Stricken, the direct translation of Love Life's Dutch title, Komt een vrouw bij de dokter, is: A Woman Goes To The Doctor. That sounds like the opening to a bad joke (the sort usually found in Christmas crackers), but you'd have to forgive Oerlemans' film if it lacked a funny bone, or any sort of jovial spirit. After all, its primary themes are infidelity, repression, anger and death. Yet somehow, against all odds, a comedy is exactly what Oerlemans has made, albeit an unintentional one. Indeed, the opening meet-cute-to-marriage montage will have you rolling in fits of laughter, that is if you're not drowning in its prepackaged sentiment. Love Life, how I loathe thee...
Based on the autobiographical novel by Ray Kluun (I haven't read it, but if it's anything like the adaptation then we have a plentiful supply of flammable materials should the firewood ever run out), Love Life tells the story of Carmen (Carice van Houten) and Stijn (Barry Atsma) as they fall in and out of love over the course of a turbulent marriage, which also births them a daughter named Luna. Soon Carmen develops breast cancer and Stjin must learn to support his wife, despite his frequent casual affairs. One of the biggest problems with the film is the fact that Stijn is such an obnoxious, philandering cock who deserves no sympathy, only loneliness and the bottom of a whiskey bottle. He's a repugnant pig of a character, and the fact that Carmen vows to stay with him, writing off his affairs as a habit (like "nose picking"), even through her chemotherapy, shines a damningly bad light over her. Despite her determined fight against the cancer Carmen is ultimately portrayed as weak, especially in the way she deals with her husband. A late scene sees her challenging him with divorce, but one bout of drunk sex later and she's forgiven all his trespasses, which are played out in needlessly explicit fashion as regularly as possible. Indeed, the amount of gratuitous nudity in the film is degrading, especially for an actress of van Houten's talents. She tries her hardest here, but the uneven alteration between saccharine gloss and try-hard marital bleakness ultimately crushes her efforts, and she comes off like the victim of a particularly ugly car crash. Oerlemans is an awful director, and he should be thoroughly ashamed with himself for wasting such a bright and interesting actress.
And yes, ugly is the word for this garbage. Love Life is a staggeringly misjudged film in terms of tone, and is sometimes just plain offensive. The juxtaposition between Carmen's radiation therapy and Stjin scouting nightclubs for no-strings sex would be bad enough (especially when we consider their 5-year-old daughter Luna, who is seemingly home alone), but then the film pulls off an amazing coup de grâce with a nightmarish sequence in which Stjin imagines himself in a strip club, faced by a buxom blonde dancing away to a techno soundtrack (the score is also wildly inconsistent), and the woman - after removing her bra and jiggling at the camera for a few seconds - proceeds to rip off her own breast, with a gruesome prosthetic effect that would make the Nightmare On Elm Street series blush. I recoiled in shock, but not in a good way. It's a horrid moment in a wretched film, and we're only about 30 minutes in when this happens. I mean, how tasteless does a film need to be before it becomes an active atrocity? It also frequently condescends the audience, introducing us to the chemo segment of the film with a big title which says 'CHEMO', like those bits in globe-trotting thrillers where the location pops up in the bottom of the screen (Paris, France etc.), except even more patronizing and unwelcome. There's no sense of time, continuity, empathy or good parenting in Love Life. These people, bar Carmen, are horrible, and you won't want to spend any more than five minutes in their company, especially when they're engaging in sub-Last Tango In Paris (Bertolucci, 1972) sex games, this time involving purple paint.
Boring, manipulative, ill-judged and far into the bowels of montage hell, Love Life is like a soap opera with flesh-ripping horror, and confirms itself as one of the worst films of the year so far. The fact that it was a box office smash in Holland baffles and worries me. No matter where you're from Oerlemans film has staggering problems that, on a moral and filmmaking level, can't possibly be overlooked. It's depressingly bad, and I regret having seen it.