BY GARY M. KRAMER | There are too few films about rural queer life, and the very fine drama “It’s All So Quiet,” in capturing the experiences of Helmer (Jeroen Willems), a big, beefy, 50-ish repressed gay farmer in the Netherlands, distinguishes itself. This compelling film is a quiet, contemplative character study that yields insights for viewers willing to look for them. Providing a strong sense of place, writer and director Nanouk Leopold, adapting Gerbrand Bakker’s popular novel, relies more on interior thought than action to tell a poignant story.
Helmer is first seen lifting his elderly father (Henri Garcin), for whom he is the sole caretaker, out of bed and up the stairs. The relationship between the two is tense, to say the least. As the film eventually reveals, Helmer once had a twin brother, Geert, who was his father’s favorite, something Helmer knows in his heart.
“It’s All So Quiet” painstakingly depicts Helmer’s life as he changes his father’s soiled bed, washes him, and brings him food. It’s mostly thankless work; his largely immobilized father just wants to die. The older man watches for the crow “that is waiting for him,” a harbinger of his impending death. Father and son eventually do address some of their conflicts but not before a few dramatic episodes prompt the discussion.
Helmer meets regularly with Johan (Wim Opbrouck), a dairy driver. Johan is obviously smitten with the sexy but reticent Helmer and tries to engage him in conversation. While Johan intrigues Helmer, the farmer resists developing a deeper friendship with him. A neighbor expresses her surprise when she learns Helmer has never invited Johan into his house for a cup of coffee. Such is the compartmentalized nature of the men’s relationship.
This is not to say Helmer is not interested in some tenderness. His loneliness and despair are palpable from both Willems’ forceful performance and the way Leopold frames his protagonist sleeping, looking out the window, or isolated in a room or a field. Willems’ expression is one of almost perpetual resignation. He goes through his daily tasks, cleaning the cow shed, disposing of a stillborn lamb, or recovering donkeys that have escaped. When he takes a shower and washes off the day, viewers experience a sense of relief, so real are the actions depicted in the film.
Helmer is overwhelmed physically and emotionally between caring for his father and managing the farm. While he rejects a neighbor’s offer to look after his dad, Helmer does eventually hire Henk (Martijn Lakemeier), a strapping young field hand to help care for the animals. Henk’s presence on the farm is welcome, and while it has the added effect of sparking some sexual longing in Helmer, he is hesitant to act on it — even when Henk stands naked before him. The relationship between these two men is as curious as the one between Helmer and Johan. However, a pivotal scene has Helmer and Henk sharing a bed and acting affectionately with each another despite the farmer’s initial protestations. The impact of this moment prompts Helmer to address some of the issues he has with his father.
“It’s All So Quiet” is an intimate and delicate drama, and it is appropriately filmed with a handheld camera that creates the feeling of eavesdropping on these characters’ lives. The film’s editing forces viewers to fill in some narrative blanks. The scene of Helmer and Henk in bed together, in particular, requires audiences to draw their own conclusions about the nature of their relationship and how things evolved to that point. The narrative doesn’t necessarily suffer, but some viewers might find the approach frustrating. It’s unclear how much time passes over the course of the film, but that may not matter.
What is significant is the mood Leopold strikes. The filmmaker uses a natural palette that infuses the film with a raw, chilly sense (especially during a rainstorm) that seeps into the characters’ bones — and the viewers’ as well. A New Year’s Eve bonfire it is one of the film’s rare scenes of warmth.
“It’s All So Quiet” culminates in a few intense moments that sneak up on viewers. After so much inaction, Helmer finally begins to express himself. Some of his emotional release involves his father, but he also expresses anguish at losing somebody he perhaps loves. Willem’s performance in the final scenes is remarkable, and the actor’s death shortly after filming wrapped makes it all that much more touching. “It’s All So Quiet” deserves a look.
IT’S ALL SO QUIET | Directed by Nanouk Leopold | Big World Pictures | In Dutch with English subtitles | Opens Jan. 9 | Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Ave. at Second St. | anthologyf