Old Dutch Masters
Published on August 6th, 2012 | by Tynan Kogane0
“Meet the Fokkens” runs from Wednesday, August 8 – Tuesday, August 21 at Film Forum.
Running time: 75 minutes; Not rated; in Dutch w/English subtitles.
Dutch directors Rob Schröder and Gabriëlle Provaas discover an unbeatably bizarre subject for their new documentary: 70-year-old identical twins who have been prostitutes in Amsterdam’s red light district for half a century. “Meet the Fokkens” (“Ouwehoeren,” which means “old whores” in Dutch) follows these charming white-haired sisters—Louise and Martine Fokken—through their day-to-day lives. They chat and gossip, meet friends and neighbors, and share stories about how they survived (and often enjoyed) all those years of prostitution. Whether strolling around the city, sitting in the front of the brothel, or traveling to the beach, they’re almost always wearing matching outfits, giving the impression, in turns, of both a creepy Diane Arbus portrait and a whimsical Doublemint Gum commercial.
The twins were pushed into prostitution when they were only nineteen by Louise’s thuggish boyfriend and to escape from poverty. During the next fifty years, they pulled countless tricks (on an average day they each had ten clients), and for a long time even owned a brothel together, which eventually closed, presumably because of unpaid taxes and for shady political reasons. Louise retired recently, at sixty-seven, because of her arthritis (she tells this with a hint of sadness, that she could no longer “get one leg over the other”) and now she spends her days in her apartment with a pet chihuahua, painting street scenes, animals, and erotica. But Martine still goes to the brothel every day—she says that she’d like to retire, too, but can’t afford to quit.
On an ordinary day, Martine arrives at work in the morning, where she makes coffee, sweeps the floor, and decorates her storefront with massage oil, knee-high black leather boots, stilettos “for the naughty men who like to wear heels,” a leather bra, and “a clip for the nipples.” After these chores, she gets changed into lingerie and sits by the window, occasionally tapping on it with her ring or the edge of a ping-pong paddle, to attract the attention of potential customers. Many of the people laugh or gawk as they walk by (well, it would be an odd sight, right?). Martine just laughs back. Anyhow, she doesn’t seem to have any shortage of regular clients. The documentary shows these explicit scenes, too, which are disarmingly candid—in one, Martine gives a handjob to an aging client while singing, “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round, for Mr. Jansen.” In another, she slow dances with a naked overweight man to jazz. But these scenes are neither disgusting nor erotic (at all), and they are depicted with almost severe banality, as though she were washing the dishes, or talking to a stranger at a bus stop.
Despite their (often difficult) lives as prostitutes, the twins aren’t cynical. In fact, quite the opposite, they’re natural exhibitionists and seem to unabashedly enjoy recounting their sexual exploits. With the candor, excitement, and affection with which most old folks recollect their experiences, the twins sift through old memories—such as when there was a line out the door for their services, or when they brought a confession booth into the brothel. They resent how the industry has changed since their heyday, and how foreigners have brought drugs and increased competition to their neighborhood. But for the most part, their inner lives don’t seem to be incredibly complicated or tormented; they appear to be more or less content with the way things have gone, with the pride and happiness they’ve found in each other, their friendships, vacations to the beach, painting, writing their memoirs, and the occasional well-hung client.
First and foremost, “Meet the Fokkens” strives to portray the eccentric twins with neutrality, and avoids passing judgments, giving them free reign to narrate their own story. This prevents the film from widening its focus—delving deeper, for instance, into the psyches of longtime prostitutes, or zooming out to examine the larger trends and problems with Amsterdam’s prostitution industry. But perhaps focusing on the twins alone is enough.
At Film Forum, preceding the screening of “Meet the Fokkens,” is Ruth Lingford’s (unrelated) animated short film, “Little Deaths,” which visually brings to life many often clichéd metaphors associated with orgasms—like a layman’s lost chapter from Roland Barthes’s “A Lover’s Discourse.”