Director: Marleen Gorris
Writer: Marleen Gorris
Starring: Willeke van Ammelrooy, Jan Decleir, Els Dottermans, Veerle van Overloop
Antonia’s Line begins with the elderly Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy) waking one morning, knowing with contented certainty that this is the last day of her life. Her mind flashes back to shortly after World War II when she and her daughter Danielle (Els Dotterman) returned to the village where she was born. Antonia’s own mother is on her deathbed. Apart from that, life is pretty much unchanged by the war. The priest spits fire and brimstone (i.e. sexual covenants) from the pulpit, the villagers tend their fields and run their shops, they abuse their simpletons and the men treat the womenfolk like cattle.
After her mother’s passing, Antonia takes over the family farm and haphazardly establishes a tiny matriarchal commune within the sweep of the wider, still patriarchal, rural Dutch community. And that is pretty much the plot of Antonia’s Line. There is no inciting incident, no discernible act structure and little character development. There is no Hero’s Journey, no sidekick who must die at the Act Two Climax, and the film’s ending is given away in the first minute. Many of the scenes are simply backdrops, barely moving tableaux vivant to augment the narration that weaves through the film like the ever-changing seasons, accompanied by endless cycles of births, marriages and deaths. And, of course, sex…
Despite the film’s casualty list rivalling Saving Private Ryan, there is a gentle humour that suffuses Antonia’s Line. The commune’s first recruit is the village idiot, Loony Lips. A young boy spatters him with an egg. Antonia seizes the miscreant and hangs the startled boy from a tree by his collar. Loony Lips does a U-turn with his dung-cart and follows her.
One by one, like wounded sparrows, the downtrodden and the disempowered come under Antonia’s sway. There’s the Mad Madonna who howls at the moon, much to the annoyance of her downstairs neighbour, known simply as the Protestant. There’s Crooked Finger, an atheist intellectual who hasn’t left his house since the war ended. There’s Deedee, the retarded girl raped by the hulking Pitte, the film’s token attempt at a Nasty Piece of Work.
The film bares its feminist breast when Farmer Bas, after 20 years still a newcomer to the village, proposes to Antonia. They are both widowed. His sons need a mother. It’s simple good sense, the kind of sense the Dutch take pride in. Antonia has other ideas: “But I don’t need your sons.” Farmer Bas hadn’t thought of that. “Don’t you want a husband either?” he cagily enquires, suddenly realising his poker hand is weaker than imagined. “You can come round from time to time,” Antonia allows, tacitly acknowledging her interest in him. “What’s in it for me?” Farmer Bas replies, in part angling for Antonia’s bedroom. The answer is not much.
Yet Farmer Bas accepts what might appear to be second-rate status and troops down the road to Antonia’s farm with his five sons in tow, ranked from tallest to shortest. But is it really such a bad deal? Bas and Antonia share their lives because they want to, with no sexual complications. They have not exchanged sexual access rights, with all the misery seen in Eyes Wide Shut, Unfaithful and Indecent Proposal, nor the slippery grappling—both sexual and emotional—of Intimacy, When Harry Met Sally and Romance. Farmer Bas may not get to bed Antonia but nor is he bound to her. And thus they are happy. In the film’s frequently recurring motif, the denizens of Antonia’s tolerant little enclave gaily gather around the long table outside the farmhouse.
The next generation of Antonia’s line is instigated when Danielle decides to have a baby. “How about a husband to go with it?” Antonia queries. No. Unlike Big Joe in Last Exit to Brooklyn who goes berserk at her daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy or the nuns in The Magdalene Sisters who punish single mothers with a lifetime in the workhouse, Antonia supports her daughter’s unconventional approach. Knowing that no villager could keep his mouth shut if they bedded Danielle, mother and daughter take a trip to the nearest city where a suitable stud is arranged. Danielle gets full value from the encounter then climbs out of bed and does a naked headstand to ensure that gravity aids the fertilising process.
Danielle’s less-than-immaculate conception invokes the ire of the priest, who churns out some bog-standard shame-based cant to turn the village against Antonia. But Farmer Bas, sensing opportunity, catches the priest with a girl. The following week’s sermon is an entirely different affair, combining enforced humility with a reminder that “salvation came into the world through a woman.” Antonia is well pleased; Farmer Bas will reap the rewards long before he gets to heaven.
Danielle gives birth to Thérèse, who turns out to be a mathematical genius. Deedee gets pregnant to Loony Lips. Antonia finally allows Farmer Bas into her boudoir. There is none of the hysterical, destructive behaviour seen in Wish You Were Here, Last Exit to Brooklyn or elsewhere in Sexcatraz. Instead, a simple tolerance for life as it is rather than as it ought to be pervades Antonia’s demesne. In the words of the film’s narrator, Time “with complete contentment produced nothing except itself.” At the heart of this contentment is an acceptance of sex in its various forms. Instead of struggling to maintain a fake façade like Marcello in The Conformist, Antonia and her clan have simply surrendered to their own true selves. Antonia’s Line breaks the impasse between love and sex delineated by Catherine Breillat in A Ma Soeur! and Romance by the simple expedient of acceptance. Cue another shot of contented domesticity around the farmhouse table.
Thérèse, the precocious little poppet, exhausts the capabilities of her current teachers and the academic cavalry arrives in the form of Lara Anderson (Elsie de Brauw). But where some see only a First Grade teacher, Danielle, with her artist’s imagination, sees the nude in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and falls head over heels for Lara. At one stroke Danielle finds herself a lifelong partner, gives the film’s graphic artist a cover still and earns Antonia’s Line an undeserved reputation as a lesbian film. In a beautifully observed scene, Danielle frets like a besotted teenager as she awaits Lara’s first visit, vexing the hell out of little Thérèse. Then “love burst out everywhere…” and there’s a montage of rather anodyne sex scenes—in this regard the film is entirely conventional—between Danielle and Lara, Antonia and Farmer Bas, Loony Lips and Deedee, etcetera, with poor Thérèse unable to sleep because of the racket.
But it’s not all bedroom jollies in Antonia’s world. The Mad Madonna dies. The Protestant, who has long loved her from a distance—more accurately, the distancing effect of sexual shame—adopts her practice of baying at the moon. And, after 15 years of military service in the tropics, Pitte returns to cast a pall over their lives by raping Thérèse. The film glosses over the emotional effects on the teenager and instead focuses on retribution, which Antonia dispenses with a good old-fashioned witches’ curse. Just as in Last Exit to Brooklyn, where the community punished Harry Black for making a sexual pass at a minor, the villagers in Antonia’s Line are finally stung into action by Pitte’s transgression and drown him in a water butt.
There are a few lame jokes about the sexual shortcomings of over-intellectual males—both are inevitable by-products of shame—before she settles on Simon, one of the commune’s children, and becomes pregnant
With Pitte’s exit the last vestiges of opposition to Antonia’s little commune dissipate. The film, in which nothing was ever particularly at stake, meanders through its last half-hour following the adult Thérèse’s search for a suitable partner. There are a few lame jokes about the sexual shortcomings of over-intellectual males—both are inevitable by-products of shame—before she settles on Simon, one of the commune’s children, and becomes pregnant. But Crooked Finger has filled Thérèse’s head with existential nonsense that “the best thing of all is not to be born,” so the question arises whether she will terminate the pregnancy. Simon doesn’t get any say in the matter, though he seems happy enough when the baby arrives.
The film spends its closing minutes killing off a few long-running characters such as Loony Lips, crushed (like Court in The Man in the Moon) under a tractor, and Crooked Finger, crushed by his own über-intellectual nihilism.
Antonia plods through the snowbound village on her horse one last time before waking one morning, knowing that her time is up. The most unsurprising ending in cinematic history is surprisingly affecting, or perhaps what the narrator describes as “the miracle of death” comes as a relief after the film’s cloying last few minutes. Antonia passes away but her line continues; the universe doesn’t bat an eyelid and the wheel of life rolls inexorably onwards as if she had never existed.
By its final reel Antonia’s Line feels a little episodic and over-contrived as a feminist tract, but the film is saved by its rootedness in the seasons and cycles of nature. The matriarchal, nurturing, sexually tolerant milieu of Antonia’s Line is the polar opposite of the emotional and sexual misery of Salò or 1984 and is perhaps the closest cinematic representation yet of what life might be like outside the walls of Sexcatraz. It doesn’t make for the most exciting cinema but, in terms of emotional wellbeing, it’s a quantum advance. Just as the cult status of The Wicker Man reflects a longing for Summerisle’s sex-positive community, the appeal of the sexually tolerant matriarchy in Antonia’s Line can be judged from its success at cinema’s glittering showcase, the Oscars.