Warren Cantrell is at the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival seeing as many movies as he can and filing reviews and reports as he goes.
Watching the Dutch film 170 Hz is very much like a stroll through an art museum’s wing showcasing some new-fangled modern art display.
Though eyes may pass over an exhibit proudly showing off a pile of industrial ball bearings meticulously sculpted into a likeness of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, when a person beholds “art” simply existing for art’s sake, one knows it. Just like a metallic President Johnson demonstrating little except an artist’s funky idea and a shit-load of time on his or her hands, so does 170 Hz speak to a director’s ambitious reach, and an absence of substance to give what he eventually touched any real meaning.
The film is exclusively concerned with the budding relationship between Nick (Michael Muller) and Evy (Gaite Jansen), two deaf adolescents that are already fairly into each other by the time the film picks up their story. The lovers are in their mid-to-late teens and still live with their parents, though Nick spends most of his time sleeping in an abandoned bus on the outskirts of town. Though both kids seem to live fairly comfortably in the arms of well-to-do parents, there’s a rebellious streak running through each that hints at trouble, especially Nick, whose destructive tendencies pop up early in the picture.
Director Joost van Ginkel works hard right from the opening frames to give the audience a truly genuine experience. Though there is background noise and normal ambient sound during the scenes when Nick and Evy are together (or outside their POV), when the film switches to their point of reference, everything goes mostly silent. Scenes where the audience looks out through the eyes of these deaf characters are haunting, and give an eerie sense of what it might be like to exist in a world without sound. The dinner scenes at Evy’s house, when parents bang on tables to get attention, or wave hands in the air for prompt, are startlingly effective, and provide 170 Hz with its emotional core.
It’s clear that van Ginkel didn’t want to simply give his audience a taste of what’s it’s like to be deaf, but instead hoped to provide a fully-realized submersion into that universe, and in this, he was undoubtedly successful. The performances of the leads are breathtaking, as their expressions, body language, and emotional transparency have to carry the weight of the entire picture, and so far as Muller (Nick) and Jansen (Evy) are concerned, they knock it out of the park.
Regrettably, this exceptional work can’t rescue a picture with an anemic plot and a thematic arc that only works for one of its two leads. Early in the picture, it’s clear that Nick and Evy are far too young and naïve to make their relationship work, and are blissfully wandering into the trappings of every first relationship. Love-drunk, and excited by the new erotic passions erupting inside two sexually awakened youths, Evy and Nick understand that they are in love, yet have no idea how to maintain a mature relationship.
As 170 Hz progresses, the audience watches as a familiar trail is carved through the film, what with Evy and Nick in love, Evy’s father in angry denial, and an elopement right around the corner. The picture doesn’t concern itself with the plot too terribly much, though, and seems content to linger above the heads of its main characters as they float through lives only vaguely connected to a coherent narrative. At times, it feels like the film is going nowhere (indeed, for a majority of its run-time, it doesn’t), for while it gives a fascinating, surreal idea of what it might be like to be young, deaf, and in love, it doesn’t add anything to this tired romantic trope except the cinematic experience of going through it once again in silence.
At 86 minutes, the picture still feels about a half an hour too long, for what 170 Hz got out of the story and its characters could have been wrapped up in a sixty minute TV movie (with commercials). Still, as it concerns sound design and visual artistry, the film is absolutely tits. More of a meditation than a movie, Joost van Ginkel’s picture plunges the viewer into Nick and Evy’s world, and tells a very raw story without any words to back up the narrative. This is a very ambitious film in this regard, for even if the picture didn’t push the boundaries of its run-of-the-mill narrative, it definitely strove to tell that story in a unique manner all its own.
Still, there’s a lot of wasted talent and work here, for a film that started off as a journey into the lives of two kids slowly transforms into the journey of just one. Though it makes for an interesting visual, the sight of two naked teenagers throwing red paint onto each other in slow motion, stylish though it may be, comes at the expense of substance.
170 Hz is Joost van Ginkel’s first full-length feature, having only done television and short film work before. It’s an interesting film, even if it isn’t a terribly good one, and it is a testament to a director with a hell of a lot of skill, some very slick moves, and a hefty set of balls on him. The film is currently playing at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, and will hopefully get the man some more work and further opportunities to hone his craft, which is raw but indeed promising.