The Columnist (De Kuthoer) (2019)

The Columnist (De Kuthoer) first published by

Ivo van Aart’s The Columnist begins with a television debate, in a studio, in front of a live audience and cameras. The topic is “Twitter, a curse or a blessing?”, and divorced mother, feminist and newspaper columnist Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) is there to make the case for curse, and to plead with viewers to “just have different opinions and be nice about it” on social media. It is a sensitive personal issue for Femke, who finds herself subjected to all the endless abuse, trolling, rape fantasies and death threats that are typically directed at prominent women. The format of the TV show is adversarial, and Femke’s interlocutor, the extreme crime fiction author ‘Steven Death’ (Bram van der Kelen), is more experienced at playing the media game, and politely undermines Femke with humour. There is very little constructive argument, but Steven does, unlike Femke, manage to promote his latest book.   

In fact this debate continues throughout The Columnist, repeatedly resumed by Femke and Steven after they become a couple, and in a different way by Femke’s teenaged daughter Anna (Claire Porro), who is conducting a determined if cordial campaign against her school’s censorious headmaster (Harry van Rijthoven) – a campaign in which she keeps using offensive language (and insulting the Netherlands’ royal family) to illustrate freedom of speech. A not dissimilar dialectic about what can and cannot be said  is discernible in the different ways that the film presents itself to different audiences: the original Dutch title of The Columnist is the altogether less refined designation De Kuthoer, or ‘the cunt whore’ (its disarmingly direct obscenity is effaced in the English title, although something of it remains just about visible if you look hard enough at the poster’s bicoloured typography).

Words may never hurt you, but of late Femke has secretly taken to tracking down her online persecutors, murdering them, and cutting off one of their digits as a souvenir (earning her the nickname ‘the middle finger killer’) – an activity that becomes a vengeful compulsion (and eliminates her writer’s block), even if it is also transforming her into the kind of violent psychopath, not at all “nice about it”, that she claims to abhor.

Like any conversation on social media, The Columnist turns on a dime from comedy to romance to horror, and from warmth to cynicism to aggression – and if Femke, with whom viewers are aligned from the start, becomes ever more repellent in her ideas and actions as the story progresses, don’t worry: it’s just a joke, and it’s only a movie, so no harm done, right?

Strap: Ivo van Aart’s serial killer satire turns dialectic about online abuse and the limits of free speech into a darkly comic ‘post’-feminist revenge pic. 

Anton Bitel