THE COLUMNIST – Review by Maitland McDonagh

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A darkly comic thriller about the perils of social-media obsession, this handsome and well-acted film covers familiar territory–especially (though certainly not limited to) for women with high-profile social media presences–with grand guignol flair.

Columnist Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) writes for a popular website, appealing to readers who appreciate her sharp but non-confrontational musings about being a divorced single mother with a smart and rebellious teenager, Anna (relative newcomer Claire Porro), trying to get through the day and support her fledgling-feminist daughter’s war against conformist high-school culture. “Why can’t we just be nice” on social media, Femke wonders, which is likely to make most viewers wonder when she awoke from the enchantment spell that caused her to miss pretty much everything that’s happened online since Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, 4Chan and every other outlet in existence devolved into Hunger Games-like competitions that pit users who just want to chat about their lives and interests against creeps, trolls and provocateurs looking to score points and impress fellow jackasses. And that includes the ones who threaten their targets with bodily harm, including rape and murder. Seriously, we’ve all been there, some of us for a quarter of a century, which is long enough to learn that policing schmucks who live to spoil it for everyone is a never-ending game of whack-a-mole and that the best course of action is to hide/unfriend/block/report them to admins and move on. And the police, of course advise Femke to chill out because “It’s just the internet. It’s not real.” Which is generally, but not always true and in any event, the subtext is clear: Stop bothering law enforcement with silly little problems.

But Femke is rattled: It’s one thing to be criticized online for suggesting that the Christmas-pageant tradition of Sinterklaus’ sidekick Black Peter being played by white men in cartoonish blackface perpetuates racist stereotypes and should be retired and another to be falsely “outed” as a pedophile. That said, Femke’s Devil Wears Prada-style uber-bitch of a publisher, who encourages her to stay away from downer topics like politics and write about stuff people enjoy reading, thinks Femke just needs to nut up and finish that book: A little kerfuffle is good for sales, especially if you include it in the back-cover copy. Granted, some people are more easily spooked by quotidian assholery than others and the divorced Femke does have a child to support. On the other hand–wonder of wonders–she also has a new boyfriend in Steven Dood (the splendidly named Bram van der Kelen), a media-savvy provocateur who’s parlayed a smart goth persona (that he’s a sweetheart whose mom does his black nail polish and probably his Marilyn Manson-style eye shadow and elaborately waxed moustache as well is a great bit) into a thriving career. Their early meet-cute on a TV talk show–he kills it, she wonders plaintively why we “can’t just be nice” on social media–is full of undelivered promise, but the fact that there’s a new man in her life isbig thing. And then there’s her obsession with jerky neighbor Arjen (Rein Hofman). Yes, he’s a creep and a reactionary sexist whose online output makes it clear that he’s deeply threatened by mouthy modern women and their unseemly independence; the trouble is that he never seems dangerous enough to justify her mounting obsession with his by-the-book whining about uppity bitches.

The Columnist means well and its subject is a significant one; the fact is that many–maybe most–women live and function in a reality that’s alien to the majority of men, especially straight ones, one in which micro-aggressions of a sexual nature are common and the threat of sexual violence is always lurking in the shadows. There’s a reason why media catering to men don’t regularly offer advice and guidelines for avoiding/circumventing sexual assault, dealing with stalkers, establishing clear boundaries without alienating your opposite-sex classmates/coworkers/neighbors/exes who don’t believe it’s over (or, for that matter, started) until they say so and persistent, unwanted suitors who just don’t get that they don’t exponentially escalate their efforts convince the uninterested object of their affections that if she’ll only just give them a chance happily-ever-aftering will ensue. (Note to rom-com writers/directors: You’re not helping.) If she keeps saying no, odds are she really does mean “No.” And let’s not forget, victim blaming: She shouldn’t have been there, worn that, said or done/not done some other thing. Collectively, that stuff adds up.

And here’s where I have to loop back and offer the possibility that I found the first half of this movie so ham fisted that I was unable to embrace the possibility that the second was meant to be real, rather than an increasingly baroque, fantasy-variation on balls-out movies about women who just can’t take it anymore, to quote novelist Helen Zahavi’s headline-grabbing 1991 novel Dirty Weekend, made into a much-reviled film in 1993, and other such notorious distaff revenge thrillers as I Spit on Your Grave/Day of the Woman (1978), Ms. 45 (1981) and multiple 2020 Oscar-nominee Promising Young Woman. But if Femke’s vengeance is meant to be 1974-Death-Wish real, I really don’t buy it. And if it’s not, well, I find it hard to care. Credit where credit is due, though: The Columnist looks marvelous right down to the last shot, eminently worthy of a toast with a Bloody Mary.

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Maitland McDonagh

Formerly's senior movies editor/reviewer, Maitland McDonagh now has her own site, Miss, and freelances for Film Comment, Time Out NY and other publications. She has written four books -- Broken Mirrors Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, Filmmaking on the Fringe, The 50 Most Erotic Films of All Time and Movie Lust -- and contributed to many others, including Film Out of Bounds, Fantasy Females, The Last Great American Picture Show and Exile Cinema. Read McDonagh's recent artilces below. For her Women On Film archive, type "Maitland McDonagh" into the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).