A Question of Silence Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: June 13, 2023
Audio: Dutch LPCM 2.0 Mono and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Run Time: 96:25
Director: Marleen Gorris Three women -- a housewife (Edda Barends), a waitress (Nelly Frijda), and a secretary (Henriëtte Tol) -- brutally murder the owner of a boutique clothing store. They are strangers to one another, having never met before the day of the crime, and do not have any connection to the victim. In the lead-up to the trial, a criminal psychiatrist (Cox Habbema) is assigned to the case to try and determine whether or not the women are mentally unstable. As the psychiatrist gets to know the three women, she becomes increasingly determined to try and understand what drove them to commit the murder.
The last few years have been a turbulent one for home video, and the changes have been a mixed bag at best, but one of the bright spots has been a push for labels to keep an eye on expanding the canon of what's worthy of rescue and restoration by finding and releasing more films by a more diverse pool of filmmakers. In particular, a 2020 piece by the New York Times asking why The Criterion Collection had so few films by Black filmmakers really helped the most famous boutique label expand the types of films they were releasing. Although Marleen Gorris's film Antonia's Line won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (making her the first female director to win an Oscar, over ten years before Kathryn Bigelow would win Best Director for The Hurt Locker), it does not appear that a single one of her films has been released on American home video since Sony Pictures put out The Luzhin Defence on DVD in 2001.
As with many great films about societal failings, it's almost embarrassing to watch A Question of Silence (original Dutch title: The Silence Around Christine M.) and recognize how relevant its depiction of a patriarchal society is 40 years after it was made. All three of the women involved in the murder (Christine Molenaar, the housewife; Annie "An" Jongman, the waitress; and Andrea Brouwer, the secretary -- all three listed in the end credits by their "professions" rather than by their names) are surrounded by men that don't take them seriously. When the therapist, Dr. Janine Van den Bos, comes to interview Christine's husband, he claims he'd do anything for his children, but "anything" means going to work, with him simultaneously acknowledging that he's "useless with kids," and complaining that the home isn't quiet when he gets off of work. An, meanwhile, swaps sexist barbs with her male customers, and Andrea's boss seems less concerned about what's going to happen to Andrea than he is about the fact that he can no longer keep track of his schedule. Of course, he may also be subconsciously frustrated by his newfound lack of ideas, given a scene in a meeting where he and another employee rely on Andrea to make the most useful contributions, and touch her without her permission when she retreats into a daze.
Only a few, if any, of these daily microaggressions are explained to Dr. Van den Bos, who interviews all three of the women but who is initially unable to connect with them on a less clinical and more human level. She is intrigued but perhaps too conditioned to keep emotion out of her analysis, leading to friction between her and Andrea, who manages to simultaneously be stand-offish and secretive while also being the most forthcoming. An is outgoing, saying lots and providing plenty of color while also keeping certain secrets to herself, while Christine gives Dr. Van den Bos the least of all, remaining completely silent. Gorris intercuts the exchanges between the women and the doctor to flashbacks of the crime (although the actual violence is kept out of frame), as well as their quiet acts of liberation after the attack (a ride on a Ferris wheel, a nice home-cooked meal, ice cream and a quick fling with a man who mistakes one of them for a sex worker).
Early on in the film, Dr. Van den Bos and her husband (Eddy Brugman), a lawyer, are at a friend's house, and he is having a conversation about how societal complacency can be just as effective as censorship -- if you convince people to be happy with what's in front of them, information that would liberate them can be left out in the open without worrying about a revolution. It's a point of view echoed by An in one of her conversations with Dr. Van den Bos: "I was lucky to have what I had." Later, the same husband casually dismisses the three women as violent psychopaths, comparing their violence to a war atrocity, only to imply just days later at a dinner party that men are mistreated in the Dutch legal system by people who have already made up their mind about their guilt or innocence. The film builds to a pair of courtroom scenes in which Dr. Van den Bos truly starts to bond with her three patients as she begins to understand her own complacency (including an intriguingly open-ended scene with queer overtones; Gorris herself later came out as a lesbian), and which illustrate the power of solidarity in the face of oppressive systems.
Even without reading the packaging, it is immediately obvious that Cult Epics did not have the original camera negative to work with when completing this 2K restoration of A Question of Silence. Instead, this new presentation was done using a 35mm print, and thus has the expected limitations of such a source. The image is soft and very grainy, with fine detail lost in black crush and the lower-generation print quality. Although the overall color grade is pleasing, said grain contains mild chromatic noise (originating from the print, not anything on the transfer end), and there are lots of little flecks and nicks throughout the presentation. That said, I'll take a soft but organic transfer over something overly processed any day of the week, and there is no sign that Cult Epics has done anything to artificially manipulate the image in order to make up for the limitations in the print.
There are two audio tracks, both in the original Dutch. I watched the movie with the LPCM 2.0 track, and found it to be a perfectly adequate experience. As this is an intimate character drama from over 30 years ago, made on a low budget in another country, I doubt anyone is expecting a sonic tapestry out of A Question of Silence. Dialogue can sound just a touch canned or "raw," depending on where the scene was filmed (a set versus a location), but this is mostly a very straightforward presentation, with the only other major element being a synth-heavy score that sometimes sounds like outtakes from George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (in a good and fitting way). English subtitles are provided, but there are a few typographical errors near the end of the movie ("sorbid" instead of "sordid," "threating" instead of "treating," etc.), and there are a few moments that are not subtitled. Most of these appear to be unimportant (a trailing bit of conversation in An's restaurant as the camera cuts to credits, background chatter from a television in Christine's apartment), but there are one or two brief interjections during the final courtroom scenes from the prosecutor that ought to have been subtitled, even if their absence does not make it harder to understand the scene.
Audio commentary by University of Amsterdam film scholar Patricia Pisters - Pisters comes from the NPR/audiobook school of scholarly commentaries, with her comments clearly written out by her in advance, and delivered in a soft-spoken monologue style. She talks deliberately and consistently, with occasional, sometimes lengthy (more than a minute) pauses in the discussion as she waits for the next point of interest to appear on screen. In addition to the expected discussion of the cast and crew, the film's feminist themes, and Gorris' filmmaking style, Pisters presumably knows her commentary is largely for an American audience, this being an American disc, and thus she also provides lots of useful cultural context in terms of both the Netherlands and specifically what was going on there in the 1980s. Overall, this is a well-written track, if a bit on the dry side.
Interview with Marleen Gorris (11:15) - This 1985 excerpt from a Dutch television program called "Cinevisie" is tragically short, with the running times padded by clips from the movie (and surprisingly spoiler-heavy ones at that). Although Gorris shares some brief thoughts on the origins of the movie and the idea of "women's pictures," I would be surprised if this clip contained even two full minutes of interview footage with Gorris. A shame that she couldn't have been newly interviewed for this disc.
Interview with Cox Habbema (16:22) - Although this is also excerpted from "Cinevisie," this is a much better piece, offering an actual sit-down interview with Habbema, conducted by the unidentified host of the program. This clip is not specifically dedicated to A Question of Silence, but the interview does kick off by discussing the movie, touching on Habbema's experience going to a couple of film festivals with Gorris, being attracted to the script and the character, and whether you need to agree with a filmmaker's viewpoint to make a great movie (her answer to a pointed question about being a feminist is laugh-out-loud funny). The discussion of Silence then springboards into include what drew Habbema to acting, Michaelangelo Antonioni's Identification of a Woman, gender roles, Virginia Woolf, the differing cultural scenes in movies and television in East and West Germany, and the difference between art and voyeurism. Habbema is very intelligent and does a good job countering and expanding on some of the interviewer's more loaded questions; I could've watched another 15 minutes of this.
Polygoon Journal Newsreel (0:46) - A very brief news snippet about a film festival, part of which covers Gorris winning the Dutch equivalent of an Academy Award, the Golden Calf, for A Question of Silence.
Promotional Gallery - A collection of around 30 still images and poster designs for A Question of Silence.
Theatrical Trailers - A trailer for A Question of Silence is included, as well as additional trailers for A Woman Like Eve (1979), The Cool Lakes of Death (1982), The Debut (1977), Frank & Eva (1973), Blue Movie (1971), and AmnesiA (2001), also available from Cult Epics.
A Question of Silence is a great, complex character study, one which presents all four of its protagonists with rough-around-the-edges complexity that defies simple categorization. Even now, four decades after it was first released, there is a palpable electricity to the characters and the performances that represents the most valuable hallmark of a filmmaker with something to say. The film is a raw cackle at how small a person can make themselves if they stop paying attention to the absurdity of what's going on around them.
The images on this page are taken from the Blu-ray and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images.