The particular limbo of grief, perennial fertile ground for drama, receives straightforward treatment in Narcosis, but with a poetic twist. Tracing the effect of a deep-sea diver’s death on his wife and children, writer-helmer Martijn de Jong infuses a standard template of family loss with a sense of mystery. Ocean exploration and the psychic abilities of the explorer’s widow are the story’s most unusual angles, and the restraint with which de Jong treats them is one of the film’s most effective qualities. The day-to-day takes on an understated eeriness that matches the unarticulated ache of the bereaved.

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De Jong’s debut feature, scripted by him and his spouse, screenwriter Laura van Dijk, recently premiered on home turf, at the Netherlands Film Festival, and has embarked on the fest circuit, with dates in Thessaloniki and Cairo ahead. Though it might be too quiet to rise to the fore in the Academy Awards’ race for international feature, its sensitive approach, eloquent visuals and superb casting mark the arrival of a talented filmmaker.


The Bottom Line Basic story, evocative details.

Cast: Thekla Reuten, Fedja van Huêt, Sepp Ritsema, Lola van Zoggel, Vincent van der Valk
Director: Martijn de Jong
Screenwriters: Laura van Dijk, Martijn de Jong
1 hour 52 minutes

Thekla Reuten stars as Merel, whose marriage to the more spontaneous John (Fedja van Huêt) is glimpsed in the pre-title sequence. She’s wound up about his impending trip to South Africa, where he’ll explore one of the world’s deepest underwater caves. He hasn’t yet packed, much to her tight-jawed consternation, but he has found time to scavenge a decommissioned telephone booth and install it on their property, delighting their children, Boris (Sepp Ritsema) and Ronja (Lola van Zoggel), with this strange relic.

A year later, Merel is behind on the mortgage payments, and the hatchback on her old car still pops open every time she starts the engine — John had promised to fix it when he got back from his trip. But he never returned from the freshwater depths of Boesmansgat. His body has not yet been found, and insurance company investigations are ongoing. Unmoored by the devastating emptiness in their household, Merel and the kids carry on, but they’re each siloed off in pain and confusion, suspended in a kind of stupor, as suggested by the movie’s title, which also alludes to the intoxicating effects of nitrogen narcosis in deep-sea diving.

Everyone, including her son, expects that Merel has used her psychic gifts to communicate with John, an assumption based on the mistaken idea that mourning falls into predictable patterns and time frames. The truth is that she’s pushed that part of herself away, not ready to face John’s death head-on. The room where she once conducted sessions with clients eager to contact their dear departed lies shuttered, and she’s now working the front desk of a tanning salon. When, eventually, she returns to her practice, her grief and fear seep into readings.

In different ways, Merel’s kids have withdrawn too. Boris, who’s about 10, is sullen and uncommunicative with his mother, making solo trips to the lake near their house to continue practicing the underwater swimming John had been teaching him. The scenes of him practicing the regimen are captured with a crystalline symmetry by DP Martijn van Broekhuizen. Concentric circles ripple around Boris on the lake’s serene surface as he carries ever-larger stones into the water, his small body charged with a heartbreaking determination, chasing an athletic goal but really pursuing his father.

His younger sister, meanwhile, speaks of John in the present tense to a new friend who doesn’t know of the past year’s events. Ronja also conducts daily conversations with her dad in the phone booth he planted among the trees, his last whimsical act before his ill-fated expedition. More than just expressions of denial and yearning, these one-sided chats reveal a child’s attempt at making sense of the changed world. There’s something brave about her playacting, especially once you’ve heard John’s voice still on the family’s answering machine, and see the speed with which Merel deletes messages from friends.

One of these is Sjoerd (Vincent van der Valk), John’s diving partner, whose generosity, guilt-ridden but sincere, becomes suffocating to Merel. She pushes him away with unapologetic bluntness, but with more self-control than she shows the insurance claims adjuster whose standard-issue expressions of sympathy enrage her.

Merel’s dealings with a real estate agent follow a somewhat predictable back-and-forth, and there’s a familiar sense of the family’s large and quirky old house as an emblem of their nonconformity (as in Mathieu Amalric’s similarly themed Hold Me Tight). But through flashbacks revealing how Merel and John fell in love with the abandoned manse when they were falling in love with each other, and how they brought it back to life, the screenplay convincingly turns the house (in the Dutch village of Bilthoven) into a character without overdoing it.

The low-key chemistry between Reuten and van Huêt (who have been screen partners before) gives Merel’s memories a natural power, and in his relatively brief screen time, van Huêt makes John’s out-of-the-ordinary drive as an explorer — and a certain equanimity regarding mortality — quietly persuasive. Other than a poignant, almost abstract image of John’s descent into total darkness (with strong contributions from sound designer Jan Schermer), his exploration itself remains offscreen.

The literal storm that arises late in Narcosis is the movie’s most conventional and least convincing turn of events, not in terms of visuals or the well-used and distinctive score, but as an obvious embodiment of escalating conflict among the three survivors. The film’s strong suit is its matter-of-fact fusion of the supernatural and the quotidian — that and its unflashy intimacy.

As compelling and nuanced as Reuten’s performance is, her character’s trajectory is unexceptional but for the psychic aspect. It’s the kids who set this tale of mourning apart. Broekhuizen’s astute camerawork, which regards every central character with exquisite but never ostentatious care, doesn’t condescend to Ritsema and van Zoggel. Held in riveting close-up, they inhabit full-fledged characters, courageously finding their way through calamity.

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