Blind Date (1996)
Directed by Theo Van Gogh
Starring: Peer Mascini, Renée Fokker, Thijs Römer
Blind Date (2008)
Directed by Stanley Tucci
Starring: Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson
Grade: C -
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Those mystified by the attempts of the characters in Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” to deal with the grief of their dead child may be equally puzzled by Dutch director Theo Van Gogh’s 1996 film, “Blind Date.” Like the currently-troubled Dogme founder, Van Gogh’s reputation as a cinematic provocateur caused controversy, reaching its peak in his critique of the treatment of female Muslims in 2004 short film, “Submission.” While Von Trier’s recent behaviour at Cannes may lead to him becoming somewhat of a pariah on the festival circuit, Van Gogh faced an eminently more dangerous opposition to his work: less than two months after “Submission” aired on television he was assassinated by a Muslim extremist.
“Blind Date” opens with Renee Fokker’s Katja entering a rather tacky-looking lounge bar, in which she proceeds to first order a drink, and secondly enquire of the whereabouts of Pom (Mascini). As it happens, Pom has answered her advertisement in the personal columns for a “sweet, honest man” considerably older than herself, and as the two have dinner, they engage in the kind of small talk you’d expect from people meeting for the first time. What quickly becomes apparent is that these two are not meeting for the first time, and as their exchange accelerates towards a more volatile tone, we learn that they are actually married, and are heavily resentful of how their lives have turned out. The film is divided into chapters based upon the personal ads, which are often shifting in nature according to what Katja and Pom want to learn from each other. As they constantly redress their desires, they discuss the reasons for their marital estrangement – nameably the death of their daughter in a car crash, and the implications of that event on their sexual relationship. During the course of “Blind Date” they each adopt interrogative and submissive roles; including he as a reporter and blind man, and she as a psychologist and dancer.
Scissors and clamps are, thankfully, deemed unnecessary for this project about a couple trying to surmise what their marriage means anymore, but that doesn’t make these parents any less radical in their method of confronting harsh realities. As a conceptualised view of self-imposed ‘marriage therapy’, “Blind Date” holds weight; how to resolve a marriage where both parties can’t be in the same room together without relinquishing their identities? The nature of this coping technique as a manufactured paradox of escape and confrontation creates intrigue, and the tense interplay between Fokker and Mascini offers a tentatively balanced dynamic to all of their roleplays. The schematics of the film as a confessional, insidiously motivated acting duel inevitably leads to bouts of self-consciousness, but this doesn’t particularly hamper it until the later scenes.
Since most of “Blind Date” is essentially acting as a divulgement of exposition, it commands attention while things feel relatively fresh, but when the film runs out of backstory to reveal (and interesting ways to reveal it) the exercise becomes rather stagnant and roundabout. An intermittent voice-over accompaniment by the couple’s dead daughter adds to the extremely macabre humour intoned in some of the more sensationalist crevices of the script, as she launches into critiques of how they’ve behaved after her demise. It’s a device that feels far too facetious for a film that’s banding around so much emotional baggage, and a weak move to realise the daughter as a proponent of the present rather than the past.
While a far more seasoned veteran of the acting branch, Stanley Tucci has tried his hand at directing no less than four times, the most successful of which is “Big Night,” his 1996 collaboration with Campbell Scott. Tucci’s decision to remake the late Van Gogh’s film in 2007 provoked surprised intrigue, and the following year it had its North American premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. While essentially a faithful remake, “Blind Date” (2008) doesn’t copy the original shot-for-shot, altering the sequence of events slightly to make more sense of the couple’s actions. Tucci also elects to alter the names of the central characters to Don and Janna, casting himself in the former role, and Patricia Clarkson to star opposite.
Those familiar with Tucci and Clarkson’s recent partnership as Emma Stone’s easy-going parents in teen comedy “Easy A,” will likely be a little aghast at how far removed from that wheelhouse “Blind Date” requires them to be. As two actors particularly excellent at instilling characters with natural qualities, this warring couple (no less conceited in nature than in the original) are far too alien and ugly for this acting duo to get to grips with. Playing against-type, the two expose the script’s manipulation of emotion far more than is present in the original, its dialogue falling flat with the familiar, composed actors unconvincing in alluding to the hatred and contempt Mascini and Fokker assumed in its predecessor. The failure of Tucci’s version isn’t exclusively consigned to either acting or casting errors, but reads as more of a misjudged endeavour entirely to take on a project that feels so heavily a product of its then-Director. Van Gogh can coax some tremendous moments from his two stars because he’s so heavily involved in its authorial elements; while Tucci remains a sure admirer of the original (even tinkering with it somewhat) he’s still primarily an onlooker staging a reconstruction.
If 1996’s “Blind Date” was an experiment with mixed degrees of success, its descendant is an ill-conceived stab in the dark. Van Gogh introduced a gimmick capable of luring an audience into a state of studious fascination, but even then that gimmick didn’t have the legs to last eighty minutes. It’s unsurprising then that the mishandled remake feels like even more of a drag – loaded with two of the finest actors of their generation, but who are completely unsuited to the darker, and, frankly, bizarre complexities of this particular story. However seedy it sounds, one wishes there were more columns in the vein of ‘Man Seeks Less Talk and More Action’, since a dearth of impact is the chief common denominator between the two episodes.
Both films are now available to buy on DVD (Region 2) as part of a 2-disc set.