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Friday, August 14, 2020

[Fantasia Review] ‘The Columnist’ Taps Into Female Rage With Biting Wit

There are a few times in The Columnist when the titular columnist, Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) should be writing, but she can’t stop checking – and obsessing over – social media. Like many elements of the film, it’s highly relatable content that feels tuned into the current political and cultural moment.

This tracks because The Columnist is undeniably a film about female rage. For audiences who have been eagerly awaiting news about Carey Mulligan’s long-delayed Promising Young Woman, The Columnist could just be the film to fill that void. The film is a satirical take on the negative impact of social media on mental health as well as a treatise on the experience of living online while female. The film’s appeal isn’t exclusively gendered, though; The Columnist will strike a chord with anyone who has ever encountered trolling, unwarranted hate or particularly spiteful comments online.

Daan Windhorst’s script opens on Femke’s appearance on a talk-show where she argues for kindness and civility online. She’s been the target of vile, misogynistic trolls after publishing an article calling for the end of Black Peter, a staple of Christmas folklore wherein white Dutch citizens dress up in blackface. Her “opponent” on the show is crime novelist Steven Dood (Bram van der Kelen) who antagonizes her on-air, but later explains his behavior as nothing more than a means to generate book sales.

Femke is also writing a book, but at every turn she encounters challenges: in addition to her writer’s block and her unsympathetic publisher who harps on her for missing deadlines, no one supports her ambition to be outspoken or political. Not helping matters is her realization that her next door neighbor Arjen Tol (Rein Hofman), who appears kind in person, is among the army of men writing vulgar and offensive tweets about her. Initially, Femke shakes it off, but Arjen’s constant home renovation construction ruins her concentration and his ugly new fence blocks her view.

So she responds. Passive-aggressively at first (she takes an axe to the fence at night). Then more forcefully: one day she climbs onto the roof and pushes Arjen off, killing him.

It’s a development that is both shocking and hilarious because it occurs so matter of factly. Initially, it seems as though the whole incident could just be Femke’s imagination. But it’s not and in Arjen’s passing, Femke finds her salvation: there’s no distracting noise, her writer’s block dissipates and the work she produces is well-received.

Until a new online commenter catches her attention and she begins to obsess anew.

A woman stands in an office in front of a poster for a book by author Steven Dood

The Columnist delights in playing in the murky moral waters of Femke’s activities. On one hand, the men that she targets are despicable, glib idiots who cower, whine and apologize when she confronts them in person about their online actions. As the film progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Femke is losing her way.

This is most evident in a low-stakes B-plot that contrasts Femke’s avenging angel with her outspoken daughter Anna (Claire Porro), who butts heads with the head of her school (Harry van Rijthoven) over issues of free speech. Anna’s quest to challenge her principal’s hypocritical and outdated values leads her to organize a gala free speech night, which acts as a non-violent alternative to Femke’s homicidal inclinations.

Another counterpoint, particularly against accusations that the film is painting “all men” in broad strokes, is Femke’s romance with Steven Dood. The character is quickly revealed to be nothing like the adversarial dick he played on TV; in fact, he’s an incredibly kind domestic partner and surrogate father to Femke and Anna. His adopted last name (which translates to “Death” in English), handlebar mustache and penchant for dressing all in black are all less-than-subtle nods by Windhorst that we shouldn’t judge a book by their cover. In The Columnist, everyone is both more complicated than they appear and simultaneously exactly what you expect.

This last point is arguably where the film falters a little. After a solid start, the back half of the film unfolds exactly as you would expect. Femke’s bloodlust inevitably conflicts with several important “real life” events and her penchant for hiding a finger from each of her victims in a box of frozen peas predictably leads to the expected hijinks.

Still, the film has a biting wit that feels very reflective of the current moment and Femke is a fantastic showcase for Herbers, whose Westworld role could hardly be considered meaty. Plus: even if The Columnist falls prey to predictable plotting in the third act, it still goes out with an audacious bang.


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