starring Katja Herbers, Bram van der Kelen, Claire Porro, Rein Hofman
screenplay by Daan Windhorst
directed by Ivo van Aart
by Walter Chaw Pity the hot-button Film of the Moment that is still somehow not about very much at all. Such is the fate of Ivo van Aart's The Columnist, which tackles Twitter and online trolling with style to burn and a game cast with nothing much to do and even less to say. Femke (Katja Herbers) is a widely-read columnist who's made some enemies by suggesting that Zwarte Piet is racist and that women should be treated as human beings. Addicted to social media, she makes the fatal error of reading the comments, is driven mad, sort of (I think), and starts murdering her trolls after Googling them. There's something about how she's blocked until after she kills someone, at which point she's able to pump out another widely-read piece about some meaningless piffle that keeps her employed. Worse, she's now under a deadline (haha, see what I did there?) to complete a book--a setup for either escalation or piquant irony, though in the case of The Columnist, it's setup for tepid social commentary made instantly impotent by the hellscape of our current reality.
The first half of The Columnist is a series of repetitive sequences in which Femke tracks down her QAnon-type tormentors and murders them, harvesting a finger from each to keep as trophies. Does she choose their fingers because that's how they tweet? Is it because they're phallic and she's, in essence, castrating them when she de-phalanges them? And what of her sticking them in a box of frozen peas? Nothing? Nothing. There is nothing going on here. Femke's just mad at assholes and wants to murder them, and The Columnist banks hard on our also wishing to see trolls murdered. And what of the murdered? In fairness, they're not well-developed as human beings, but that's only because no one in the film is well-developed as a human being. The Columnist, then, is about not how these trolls are actually people with complexity and depth, but how they aren't. This would be troubling in a useful way if Femke herself were a character of some complexity and depth. Alas, she is not. The second half of the film is about Femke finding a boyfriend (Bram van der Kelen) who writes horror novels using the nom de plum "Steven Dood" or "Steven Death," and about Femke's high-school-age daughter, Anna (Claire Porro), dealing with censorship as an unctuous school administrator smothers her freedom of speech. If you're thinking to yourself that these subplots seem obvious and redundant, you've already done more work than the filmmakers.
With an arch tone reminiscent of Jan Egleson's A Shock to the System and a premise lifted from Douglas Hickox's Theater of Blood, The Columnist is not just weak tea, but weak tea made from some very old tea-bags indeed. Grafting on Twitter without very much insight into e-tribalism, the d/evolution of media in the digital age, feminism in concept and action--without very much insight, period, just makes the film seem angry without clarity when it comes to the targets of its rage. Femke is mad either because trolls disagree with her or because she's been accused of being a pedophile, without recognizing that these are not the same things. As far as cautionary tales go, it's the Mazes and Monsters/Tipper Gore school of reefer madness. There's a moment in a mansion where I thought we were going to discover a vast conspiracy of 4Chan incel twats committed to gaslighting a woman to madness, but, yeah, nope. Anyway, The Columnist looks expensive and slick as it yells loudly about nothing. Maybe it's not a bad satire of our current media culture, after all. Programme: Selection 2020