|'A theatrical game of cats, mice and other animals across the swamp surrounding Bax's house'.|
A black comedy of errors from the Netherlands, Schneider vs. Bax is at its best when writer, director and star Alex van Warmerdam manages to successfully juggle the numerous absurd characters and situations he creates. When he does so, van Warmerdam demonstrates such comedic skill that it's impossible not to enjoy the ludicrous events playing out in front of you.
The first act sets things up well enough. Contract killer Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere) is forced on his birthday to take out a contract on novelist Ramon Bax (van Warmerdam), his employer Mertens (Gene Bervoets) insisting that Bax - "a child killer" - must die today or the window of opportunity will close. Schneider begrudgingly takes the contract, assuming that it will be a quick and easy job allowing him to return home to enjoy the celebrations he has planned. Of course, things become far more complicated, setting in motion a theatrical game of cats, mice and other animals across the swamp surrounding Bax's house.
After an opening section which feels a little too slowly paced, it's during the middle act that van Warmerdam hits his stride. Characters come and go at an exuberant pace and the narrative takes one unexpected twist after another. It's a heady cocktail of pitch black buffoonery, with neither drugs, prostitutes, sexual deviance nor death (of course) proving to be off limits. The director's sense of humour is sharpest when at its simplest: a text message sent to the wrong person provides a particularly funny complication whilst also feeling entirely believable through the lens of Schneider vs. Bax's warped reality.
As is too often the case with farcical comedies on screen, however, van Warmerdam eventually tangles his film up in its own complexities a little too much. More characters are introduced than is necessary - a brief excursion involving Bax's father Gerard (Henri Garcin) is particularly superfluous, introduced out of nowhere and adding very little of worth to the overall story. Others, such as Bax's girlfriend Nadine (Eva van de Wijdeven) and her friend Jules (Bart Harder) are set up well initially but allowed to drift out of the film somewhat uneventfully, never providing the humorous results they potentially could have delivered.
This leads to Schneider vs. Bax's messy conclusion which leaves too many plot threads unresolved. More damaging, however, are those which are tied up by van Warmerdam in an unsatisfying manner. Non sequiturs and surreal moments feel like they are thrown in not because they fit, but because the director simply doesn't know how to draw his various narrative strands together satisfyingly. The final scenes go for Burn After Reading-style anticlimactic befuddlement but actually leave the film's moral compass feeling frustratingly skewed, delivering a disappointing end to a largely enjoyable tale.
The 30th Leeds International Film Festival runs from 3rd-17th November 2016 at thirty venues across the city, including Hyde Park Picture House and Leeds Town Hall. Tickets and more information are available via the official LIFF website.