Talk At The ICA, The Experimental Cinema Of Frans Zwartjes, 06/05/14

Upon research into artists who’s life may impact their work, I came across the films of Frans Zwartjes. I attended a seminar at the ICA, where a group of us watched extracts of his experimental films, spoke about his life and discussed our thoughts. I was immediately drawn to Zwartjes work. It was something about the films, that all seemed to be completely disconnected from the real world around us. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that he almost entirely shoots interiors, but the few times the camera deviates outside, his unique way still shows the world in utter disconnect.At times when viewing his films, I get the feeling that I’m not supposed to be watching, that my act of viewing is transcending simple voyeurism and actually attaining violation.

I was immediately drawn to the film, ‘Living’, 1971. [see video below] The film introduces a simple concept: Frans and Trix, Frans’ wife and muse, walk around the freshly-painted empty living room of the house they have just moved into. The two arrange miniature furniture on a floor plan, crawl on the floor, and aimlessly look around. This is the entirety of the action in the film.

The atmosphere Zwartjes manages to create is what i think what makes this film so powerful. There is a large series of windows on one wall of the room, but Zwartjes exposes the film so the panes are filled with nothing but a sublime white, totally removing the room from the outside world. For all the viewer knows, the house could be located in outer space. This detachment helps to enhance the idea of Trix and Frans in total isolation from the rest of the world. Zwartjes also shot the film with as wide of a wide-angle lens as he could get without having to shoot a fish eye lens, and this decision extends the atmosphere of isolation that has already been established by the empty room and detached pervasiveness. With Living, Zwartjes not only investigates the room himself, but allows the viewer to do the same. Within the isolation, an obsessive relation between Frans and Trix is fully apparent. These rooms not only keep the outside world from spilling in, but also keeps lust and obsession from spilling out.

Along with the mood of isolation, Zwartjes also manages to hold a remarkable sexual tension. This tension briefly is released, as the montage changes.  The pace of the majority of the film is calm and studied, but several scenes suddenly switch to very short, cuts of Trix’ breasts and underwear as she lounges around the empty space. Zwartjes remains still, constantly biting down on a handkerchief as he continues to examine the space around him, occasionally catching fetishized glances of his wife. At one point in the film, the camera is placed on the floor, and points upward, fixated on Trix. In  a subtle and tasteful way, the viewer can’t help but look at her breasts, due to the nature of her outfit and the angle the camera is filing from.

His highly stylised, poetically claustrophobic films achieve a unique level of sensual intimacy in their renditions of sexual and domestic tension, and voyeurism

The soundtrack brings the film together. Discordant sounds of an organ pierces the viewers ears as the ghostly-pale faces of Trix and Frans wander around their space. The soundtrack is some what hauntingly beautiful, a testament to that inherent aspect of cinema, the combination of sound with images.

The fact that Zwartjes processes his own film, allows him to further play with atmosphere in his image, and allows him to saturate the image in a singular way, creating an overall aesthetic throughout. The frame is filled with bright whites, grayish blues, dark greens, and occasionally, an intrusive red. The effect the colour palet adds a sense of uncertainty and imagination.

 All of the film is shot by Zwartjes himself, and Zwartjes himself is in the frame for most of the film. His shots are hand held, and he handles the camera in disorienting swooping motions so well; there’s not a shake to be found.


‘Living’, 1971.

My Interest in Frans Zwartjes life, and the effect his life experiences may have had on his work:

Zwartjes was born in 1927, the son of an errant nun and a local amateur boxing champion. His mother dragged the family through the Second World War on a pension from his father’s job as a railway signalman. Their passionate, intellectually mismatched relationship had ended when he died at the age of 42, during the filmmakers’ childhood. In 1950 Zwartjes took up a position playing viola for the Dutch Opera whilst also working as a violin maker. After six years he felt a loss of direction, and on the advice of his mother he took a job as a male nurse for a year at the Santpoort Psychiatric Hospital.

The experience was to have a profound effect on Zwartjes. He relates how on his first day he had heard an opera that he had performed in on the radio, its beauty contrasting painfully with the psychological extremis of the institution’s patients. This psychological intensity is apparent in all of Zwartjes’ work. Heavily made up and expressionless, the mute characters never directly respond to their alienation and psycho-sexual entrapment. His speechless, fussily dressed, protagonists are caught in claustrophobic close up, the camera insinuating, fetishising, interrogating.

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