The Cave



De Grot : Michael Koolhaven : Netherlands 2001 : 91 mins approx

Tim Krabbe wrote The Golden Egg, the novel on which George Sluizer’s terrific Dutch psycho-thriller Spoorloos (The Vanishing) was based – so it’s no surprise to see his follow-up novel adapted for the screen. Like Spoorloos, The Cave boils down to the relationship between two very different men: sensible geologist Egon (Fedja Van Huet) and reckless drug-dealer and all-round master-criminal Axel (Marcel Hensema). The film switches between different stages in their friendship, from the day they first met, on a school trip, to their early twenties in swinging Amsterdam, to when the thirtysomething Egon, finally tiring of his respectable existence, gets involved with glamorous Axel’s perilous drug-running scheme in the (fictional) far-eastern country of Ratankiri. Meanwhile, a Canadian housewife named Marcy (Kim Huffman) prepares to embark on a mysterious expedition of her own – how does she fit into it all? Trying to solve the puzzle is a Dutch journalist who’s arrived in Ratankiri to investigate a gruesome killing.

Krabbe’s Cave is an ambitious, confident, elusive novel, with a complex structure that only clicks together right at the very end. Filming it was always going to be a tricky proposition – a task, it turns out, far beyond the abilities of a limited director like Koolhoven, even with a screenplay by Krabbe himself. What’s called for is the risky abandon of an Axel – but Koolhoven’s approach is totally Egon: steady, conventional, unimaginative, fully of hackneyed background muzak and distracting gauzy filters to indicate ‘the past’. As we skip around in time, there’s no build-up of narrative momentum – the English-language Marcy episodes are inserted so clumsily audiences may wonder whether the projectionist has accidentally slipped in the wrong film, not just the wrong reel.

While Spoorloos was nobody’s idea of a visual marvel, at least Sluizer knew how to build suspense and create a mounting sense of delicious dread – Koolhoven’s relentless chopping-about, however, dissipates whatever tension might be generated by the claustrophobic plot. It’s a shame, because the Axel-Egon relationship is worthy of Patricia Highsmith’s tales of deadly, binary males, and there are also shades of Harry Lime and Holly Martins from The Third Man here or, more recently, the symbiotic yin-yang ‘characters’ at the heart of David Fincher’s Fight Club. Those directors used the source books as a starting point for very loose, very effective adaptations – The Cave makes the fatal error of sticking too close to an entirely different medium, with unfortunate results. The Vanishing was disastrously remade by Sluizer in Hollywood – ironically enough, Krabbe’s Cave contains enough strong material to suggest that it might yet prove the basis for a much more successful American version. Provided, of course, they hand it over to an Axel, and not another Egon.

10th March 2002
(seen 12th February, Cinestar Berlin – Berlin Film Festival / European Film Market)

by Neil Young
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