This Irish-Dutch co-production from director-writer Urszula Antoniak, her first feature, is just now showing up in American art house theaters after its release in the Netherlands a year ago and more than a dozen film festival screenings (winning more than a half-dozen awards at both the Locarno International and Nederlands Film Festivals alone).
As the film begins, urban scavengers pummel through cast-off possessions (stuffed animals, tinkets, furniture) outside a barren apartment, the belongings of a 29-year-old red-haired woman (Lotte Verbeek, a Dutch actress who reminded me, in appearance and demeanor, of Sarah Polley). She sullenly twists at her simple gold wedding ring, pushing it off and out of her life. Her tired blue-grey eyes attract our attention as she sits sedately in a corner. Soon, what little she retains of her life is stuffed in a backpack as she hitchhikes away from her city setting to the coast of western Ireland.
What little we can determine of her past is in small nuances and spits of dialogue. Her hand presumably caressing her former/dead spouse as she sleeps on the cold, rocky shoreline. When a family asks if she needs help as she forages for food scraps in a picnic area garbage pail, she curtly retorts, “No. Do you?” Obviously the woman values her privacy, even if she is starving as she plods along the rain-drenched back roads.
This self-contained woman is so secretive that she won’t offer her name (“It’s none of your f*****g business.”) to a widower (Martin, played by equally sad eyed Stephen Rea) who allows her into his ascetic home, which she had steathly yet politely invaded earlier, in his absence. Martin, his placid demeanor notwithstanding, easily fights back the woman’s brashness with his own pluck, knocking the bench out from under her and calmly telling her “No need to be rude.” From their initial encounter, their yin/yang connection allows her food (she still “lives” in a tent in the rolling hills nearby) in return for chores about the house, a remote home on a spit of land by the water. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are not, initially, part of her vocabulary.
“Nothing Personal” is quite the subdued effort, a melancholy two character film about their awkward relationship, ever dampened as much by the drizzly climate as by their wet spirits. Trudging through their fits—she wants her privacy, he wants conversation—is like struggling through the bog that surrounds the house. You could compare it to Robinson Crusoe, two souls adrift on a deserted island. We get to watch through our detached window. The cinematography by Daniel Bouquet captures County Galway’s remote beauty and the quietude perfectly—clothes hanging on a line, a half-filled glass of milk on a kitchen table sprinkled with a bread and fruit.
Even if the rain doesn’t lift, a smile (and some civility) breaks out between the wounded characters. A pleasant comfort and small talk ensues as they tend to his lobster traps, gardens, and other earthly chores. The sun even comes out! As the barriers melt, the companions snoop into the past of the other. It’s not done with any malice afoot, but almost like foreplay.
Polish-born Antoniak breaks her spartan, slim-dialogued film into chapters that touch on each character’s back and front stories: Loneliness, The End of a Relationship, Marriage, The Beginning of a Relationship, Alone. It’s a nice debut film, deliberately crafted, placidly powerful, and sensibly touching, with a dash of stubborn frivolity tossed in for effective measure.