Director: Thijs van Meurs
Writers: Davy van den Eijnden, Ian van den Burg, Thijs van Meurs & Troy Gazan
Cast: Yaron Mesika, Caresse Donks
Running time: 7mins
Full disclosure before we get into this review, I am not a fan of 48-hour film challenges. Not remotely. It has always felt to me that such events were almost entirely self-serving; filmmakers participate largely seem to participate to test themselves on a technical basis, or for a bit of a laugh among friends and colleagues. Neither of these yield much in the way of engaging narratives, or innovative cinematography – instead, the films produced either tend to serve as a proof of concept to producers looking for ‘capable individuals’ who can coble together standardised footage on a budget at short-notice, or insufferable in-jokes which flounder outside the context of a 48-hour film festival, because they aren’t ‘for’ the likes of us industry outsiders.
When I noticed that the 48 Hour Film Project Rotterdam had declared Meer dan Mij [More than Me] its Best Film of 2020, I must admit that it elicited a withering sigh from me. This might be because that particular festival has previously demonstrated it is not especially discerning in the entrants it lauds – handing multiple award nominations to the interminable Lost last year – but also because I suspected at best what I was about to see was top of the pile among a derivative bunch. While it might not win any awards for originality, however, Meer dan Mij is certainly a cut above that previous film.
Aside from the issue of the music being too loud in the opening scenes obscuring some of the early dialogue, some ropy pretending someone is on the other end of a cell-phone, and a lack of English subtitles (which is fine if you are submitting to only Dutch festivals, but if you do this to an international one they are likely to just lump you straight in the ‘reject’ pile), the film is technically sound. The mise-en-scène is well thought out, and considering the resources that would have been available, the film does a good job of excusing the number of actors and locations it had access to. That alone is an improvement.
The film opens with a strenuous sequence of Gerard Breur Junior (Yaron Mesika) posturing as though he were doing some kind of ‘business,’ sitting alone in a suit, prodding ponderously at the keys of a laptop, rubbing his hands over his face and sighing, while ignoring calls from the man we later learn is Gerard Breur Senior. Apparently the now estranged patriarch rarely factored into young Gerard’s early life, as he was always more focused on succeeding in his business. Now in his 30s, it is clear that the protestant work ethic of his father has rubbed off on Gerard, for better and for worse.
After years of living in a Spartan life in his sparse apartment – illustrated by the fact the a store-room populated only by a packet of chocolate digestives, a lone bottle of Champagne and an obviously important video tape – Gerard informs his girlfriend Melissa (Caresse Donks) that his business Simcorp is simply “gelukt” (it has succeeded). The best aspect of the film is the interplay between Donks and Mesika, who have managed to convey a strained relationship in as few takes as possible as per the 48-hour challenge. Donks is warm and supportive – if a tad ‘extra’ – reflecting the more personable relationships she had with her own family, while Mesika is cold and withdrawn at what should be the happiest moment of his life, and evidently resents her for “being a daddy’s girl.”
Unfortunately, their interactions aren’t nearly as intricate as they might have been, had there been more time to plan, shoot and edit them. At the same time, the minimalist dialogue makes it hard to fathom exactly how this film could have had four writers working in addition to the director. Just what Davy van den Eijnden, Ian van den Burg and Troy Gazan were up to during the 48 hours is anyone’s guess – though again, due to the limitations of the format, I can only assume they each had another eight side-roles to focus on. The script seems to have been low on the agenda in that case – something you just can’t get away with in narrative cinema – and this is reflected by is a real lack of invention surrounding the story.
We’ve all seen this done a million times before, so while co-writer and director Thijs van Meurs did not submit an English subtitle track with the film, I was never left at all unsure of what was going on. To clarify, I did simply watch this as a silent movie, or by trying to glean meaning from the absurd automatic subtitles Google provided. After viewing, I also asked for a native Dutch speaker to watch through with me, and they confirmed every single detail. There is seldom a more frustrating experience than trying to translate a language you do not speak – but watching a film where you know beat for beat what is to come manages to be less enjoyable.
In a film like Train to Busan (which I mistakenly watched entirely in Korean) that is fine, because even though I was able to follow it by way of reading conventions, which exact conventions would be utilised in the film remained a surprise. In an extremely pedestrian A-B film about an estranged business-dad and his son, however, there is only likely to be one ending – one party finally reaches out, and we cut to black. Presumably this experience will help him become a more rounded person, and avoid becoming another version of his father, while rebuilding his relationship with his girlfriend. Quelle surprise! Never wondering for one second where the film is going – even if my Dutch is horrendous at present – felt utterly tiresome, and was exactly what I was worried would happen when I saw another 48-hour challenge film arrive in my inbox.
What keeps Meer dan Mij away from the kind of mauling Lost was subjected to, is that it at least seems to have its heart in the right place. Good central performances and relatable motivations an audience can identify with go a long way. The human beings we spend time with behave in a recognisable manner, and seem to reflect with remorse on their more spiteful moments during the story. At the same time, while the tropes it skates by on are well-worn, they do at least avoid lapsing into self-parody, as was the case with the unborn “Little Johnny” whose future was supposedly at the heart of Lost.
I can see exactly why Meer dan Mij managed to win the 48 Hour Film Project Rotterdam. It is broadly well-put together and features some solid central performances, driven by clear and relatable motivations. What it lacks is an arc – the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and in this case there are no deviations or intersecting plot lines. It is the epitome of the 48-hour formula – but if the team behind it are interested in reaching and inspiring a wider audience than the in-crowd such a format services, they will need to devote much more time and effort to future projects.