After the haunting and otherworldly Borgman, presented two years ago at L’Étrange Festival, Alex van Warmerdam – the enfant chéri of the festival – returned this year with Schneider vs. Bax, only to win the Grand Prix. As suggested by the title, the film’s plot is built around the duel between two contract killers hired by the same employer to do each other in. The film starts with the two protagonists waking. Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere) – allegedly an engineer – is woken up by his beautiful wife (Loes Haverkort) and children on his birthday, and has to cancel his day off because of a phone call from his boss Mertens (Gene Bervoets). Ramon Bax, a solitary writer living in an isolated house by a lake in the middle of a swamp, is woken up by the thought of his daughter Francisca’s (Maria Kraakman) imminent visit, and unmannerly chases away his young mistress, Nadine (Eva van de Wijdeven), to avoid an embarrassing encounter.
Long before the duel is put in place, Warmerdam establishes the comic nature of his film, when Mertens clumsily falls from his chair and accidentally knocks himself out after Schneider’s phone call. From there on, a long series of unexpected twists and blunders complicates the trap originally set for Schneider, in a way reminiscent of Édouard Molinaro’s A Pain in the Ass (1973).
Yet Warmerdam does not play by the rules of the hitman genre. He remains faithful to his criticism of the Dutch middle classes, and in this dark, social-comedy thriller, we go through every stage of a family crisis: the grown-up daughter’s depression, the father’s drug abuse, the grandfather’s incest, to name but a few.
Once again, Warmerdam succeeds in creating a perfect, absurd mix of very realistic action and very unrealistic sequences of cause-and-effect, the accumulation of which fuels the plot. The mystery of Borgman gives way here to exhilarating comedy, indulging in some delightfully trashy jokes, as when Nadine returns with her friend Jules, who threatens to crush Bax under his thumb, only to have his thumb shot off a few minutes later.
In Schneider vs. Bax Warmerdam yields to nature’s call, which was already budding in his previous films. The gardens, forests and countryside there provided a counterpoise to the urban, middle-class setting that Warmerdam is so keen on satirising (the countryside is also an occasional burying ground). This film was shot on location in a nature reserve, and the choice of the wild marshes deeply affects the aesthetics of the film, which moves away from the usual Hopper/Tati-like atmosphere. Much more than in The Last Days of Emma Blank (2009), the exceptionally picturesque landscape has enabled Warmerdam to achieve an unprecedented level of mastery in articulating elements of the plot with visual effects. Bax’s white, immaculate lakeside house (contrasting with his profession) is made even brighter by the fact that the house has a glass roof to let more light in. The obsessive cleanliness of the interior is almost uncanny, especially as Bax returns there all muddy from the swamps, without affecting the pristine state of the house. This is perhaps the most original of Warmerdam’s aesthetic choices: rather than a chiaroscuro reflecting the moral stakes of the protagonists, the screen is overwhelmed by the unchallenged brightness of the swamps in broad daylight, which thus paradoxically enhances the film’s dark atmosphere and the characters’ no less dark motivations. No pathetic fallacy here – the weather remains sunny all through the fight between Schneider and Bax, and the different deaths that occur in its course, even until the film’s ‘happy ending’, when Schneider returns home to his ‘perfect’ family, who are blissfully ignorant of the pater familias’s profession.