Color, 1982, 124 mins. 31 secs.
Directed by Nouchka van Brakel
Starring Renée Soutendijk, Derek De Lint, Erik van 't Wout, Adriaan Olree, Peter Faber, Claire Wauthion
Cult Epics (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Wrapping up its trilogy of films dedicated to fascinating Dutch filmmaker Nouchka van Brakel that began with The Debut and A Woman Like Eve, Cult Epics presents her most financially successful and ambitious film, the sprawling period piece The Cool Lakes of Death (Van de koele meren des doods). The film was a significant career step as a vehicle for star Renée Soutendijk, who stole her scenes in Paul Verhoeven's provocative 1980 film Spetters and would briefly become an international art house sensation in 1983's The 4th Man. She gets a great showcase here in what amounts to a two-hour demo reel, going from naive innocent to romantic heroine to tormented madwoman. Though shot on a very limited budget, the film makes the most of its setting with an attentive, artful eye to costumes and art direction making it a compelling time capsule as well as a fine character study.
Traversing thirteen years in the life of Hedwig (Soutendijk) starting in 1869, when she's raised in a strict religious household following the death of her mother. While visiting her mother's grave, she becomes attracted to a man she meets, Johan (Wout), which unleashes a torrent of physical and verbal abuse at home that provokes her into a hanging attempt. Three years later, she opts for financial security by marrying the abstinent Gerard (Olree) instead of Johan, who's now a struggling artist, and endures a deeply unsatisfying marriage. From there it's a string of traumas and infidelities as another man enters her life, the musician Ritsaart (Poltergeist: The Legacy's De Lint), who will leave a mark on her life forever.
Told entirely from Hedwig's perspective with an opulent visual sensibility that recalls classical paintings, The Cool Lakes of Death is surprisingly harsh for a mainstream Dutch box office ht with our heroine really put through a confounding series of events that take a severe toll on her mental health. The focus on what women have to endure for acceptance is never far from the viewer's mind, especially after an earlier corset-binding scene hammering home the perverse message that pain equals beauty. The film isn't entirely successful, with the main debit being the flat electronic score by two of its actors (Wout and Peter Faber) that cries out for something more lyrical and carefully orchestrated. However, what we get is still very effective with Soutendijk really worth the price of admission by herself.
Apparently never given a bona fide theatrical release outside of Holland (despite being submitted for Oscar consideration by the country that year), The Cool Lakes of Death made its U.S. debut in any format from Cult Epics on Blu-ray and DVD (also in a box with the director's other two films). Image quality is about on par with the other two with a transfer cited as a new 4K restoration; it's a rather gritty film in some darker scenes that seem to be aiming for a natural Barry Lyndon-style look, so this is presumably authentic to the source. Detail is impressive throughout and colors are nicely saturated, with a stylized scheme that usually leans heavily on the gold side and feels very Borowczyk-esque at times. The LPCM and DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono tracks both sound clean and crisp for the original Dutch soundtrack (with a bit of accented English reflecting our protagonist's fixation with British literature, and optional English subtitles are provided. Polygoon Journal (2m11s) is a brief news clip showing the film's warm reception at a premiere with the star and director in attendance, followed by a gallery (1m33s) of promotional material and the trailer for this film, The Debut, A Woman Like Eve, and My Nights with Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie.
Reviewed on September 8, 2021.