So what’s the opposite of “frivolity”? Whatever it is, the protagonist of It’s All So Quiet embodies it.
This is a Dutch movie—very slow, languid pace, very little dialogue, minimal story, lots of long shots of the protagonist standing motionless, silent, looking out a window or just seemingly lost in thought in the middle of a room or while carrying out some mundane task.
In some ways it’s as boring as that sounds, yet I found myself at times surprisingly engaged in this movie. It really wasn’t that hard to stick with it; rarely was my mind wandering. It’s the kind of movie, given the lack of dialogue and such, that requires watching closely to pick up whatever non-verbal clues you can from the characters and the situations if you want to have any hope of figuring out what’s going on and what it means. So you have to pay closer attention than with most movies, but in spite of the overall somberness of it all, I found myself more motivated than not to do so. I’m sure I still missed a lot—as will be apparent in what I say about it—but it has a quiet intensity to it that drew me in to a respectable degree.
Helmer is a farmer. His is a small, family farm where he raises cattle and sheep. Perhaps he has crops and other animals too, but that’s what we see anyway.
He lives with his father, who is an aged invalid. The father seems at least mostly coherent, so I don’t think his mind is gone, I don’t think he’s senile to a significant extent. But his body is largely useless. He’s not literally paralyzed, but he’s basically helpless, unable to get around on his own, unable to do much of anything, bedridden. To move him from room to room or up or down stairs, Helmer must carry him as dead weight; it’s not just a matter of walking alongside him and allowing him to lean on him and shuffle forward.
Their interaction is largely wordless. (Helmer’s life is nearly wordless, as far as that goes.) Helmer does what he does with a look of grim commitment to duty. There is no warmth. It does indeed feel much more like a commitment to abstract moral duty than a commitment to another human being.
He puts me in mind of the conservative, old fashioned, breadwinner-type husband and dad, who, if he is upbraided by his wife for never showing emotion, never saying “I love you,” etc., is likely to respond that a man expresses himself through actions not mere words, that he is supporting his family and keeping a roof over their head and surely that’s a more meaningful way of manifesting love than being talkative and saying all the phrases women like to say and hear.
That’s Helmer. The strong silent type. He works long and hard on his farm, and he fulfills his familial responsibilities, and he does it all without complaint.
There is no neglect, but no willingness to go above and beyond the bare minimum care in order to lessen his father’s suffering or make a deeper connection with him. He’ll stoically carry him to the bathroom and meticulously cleanse him after he soils himself, and clean and replace the sheets on the bed, because this is a necessary part of the care of an invalid, but he won’t engage with him as someone he loves.
The father seems aware that this is the best he’s going to get from his son. He probes for a bit more, but always tentatively, as if he fears that if he is too demanding, too annoying, then he will lose even the minimal amount of care he is now receiving.
So he’ll experiment with “I’m hungry,” “Call the doctor,” and “I want to die” (implying he wants assistance in killing himself) to see what response he might get, but he won’t insist.
Helmer’s response to the first is a sarcastic, “Yeah, I get hungry sometimes too.” His response to the second is simply to tell him no. His response to the third is to ignore it.
In his mind, his caregiver role requires him to provide a certain amount of food to his father and he has done so, so no more will be given. It requires him to use his judgment for when the doctor is needed—for something more than breaking the monotony of what is clearly an utterly boring, unchanging life for his father—and his judgment is that the present is not one of those times. It certainly does not require him to assist his father to die, so that request can be disregarded.
His father is waiting to die, and Helmer is waiting for him to die. His father is quite aware of the latter. At one point, Helmer is looking closely at his motionless father in bed, and the father mutters in answer to the unspoken query, “I’m not dead yet.”
Why does their relationship take this form? Why the lack of warmth? One senses that they were never close. Likely the father was hard and strict, perhaps he was abusive. In any case, Helmer’s attitude seems to be, “You’re my father so I have to take care of you, but I don’t have to like you.”
In one of the closest things to an “exchange” between them until late in the movie, his father finally asks him quietly at one point, “Why do you hate me? What did I do to you?” Helmer does not respond, or even change his usual stony expression.
The farming is fascinatingly realistic in this movie. It doesn’t seem to be a very mechanized, modern farm. There are plenty of lingering shots of impassive animals living unchanging, rote lives, while the impassive Helmer performs his unchanging, rote duties.
The farm life is certainly not glamorized. It’s overcast, cold days, with plenty of dirt and shit, and unremitting manual labor. But Helmer does it all with the same cold, scrupulous commitment to duty with which he carries his father to and from the bathroom.
He not only lacks significant, deep connection with his father, but seemingly with anyone else. Nor for that matter does he have much in the way of superficial social connection with others, not with his laconic, stoic ways. Again, think the opposite of “frivolity.”
He seems to maybe like the married neighbor lady a bit, and maybe she likes him as well. But insofar as there is any potential for Helmer to connect with any of the people on the periphery of his life (which is as close as anyone other than his father is), the nature of that potential connection is consistently ambiguous. Even if this neighbor woman, for instance, is indeed tentatively reaching out to him, is it purely a matter of friendship, or is she opening the door to a possible affair? She seems to only stop by his place when her husband is too busy to accompany her.
Then there’s one of the few other people with a significant role in the film, a guy I thought might be another neighbor or maybe a delivery person, but who I think comes around to pick up the milk Helmer milks from his cows. In any case, he’s there regularly, and he seems favorably disposed toward Helmer in a quiet, kind of awkward way. He makes modest efforts to engage with Helmer, at least at the level of small talk, which Helmer at worst tolerates and at best may welcome in some small way.
They interact oddly. Is the milk guy just a lonely fellow with little human connection in his life who senses that Helmer is the same, and is cautiously offering some degree of friendship if Helmer is open to it? There’s a way they look at each other, a way they tend to unconsciously find themselves to have drifted closer together physically than is socially normal—which generally results in one of them looking a bit uncomfortable and hastily but subtly drawing back—that feels like it might be a gay thing. Whatever it is, Helmer seems neither willing to express receptivity, nor desirous of ridding himself of the milk guy and their ambiguous interaction.
Then a teenage boy arrives at the farm. I was a bit lost as far as who this person was or what he was doing there. The way he and Helmer interact, my sense was that maybe it was his son from some long since ended marriage, presumably one he had had minimal contact with as he has to take the boy around to acquaint him with his life and his farm, of course slowly and almost wordlessly.
The milk guy, making conversation, asks him, “So that’s your nephew?” Helmer responds that it is not, with no further elaboration. The milk guy says, “He’ll be your new farmhand?” and Helmer nods.
But it feels like they have some family connection, since the boy moves in and proceeds to walk around in various states of undress and such, manifesting a casualness that I wouldn’t expect from a mere employee. Helmer takes him in to see the old man. The boy looks a bit intimidated. The father asks to see his hands, examines them (I assume for calluses, to see if he is accustomed to manual labor), looks unsatisfied, and dismisses him, with Helmer looking on silently but not disapprovingly.
In a way that mirrors the relationship of Helmer and his father, the boy and Helmer are awkward with each other and seem not to know what to say to each other. The boy, like Helmer’s father, seems to have some openness to connect more with Helmer, but no idea how to bring that about, while the stolid Helmer at most gazes at him occasionally, like he’s trying to work out in his mind what additional kind of interaction with him, if any, he should allow.
For much of the movie, Helmer is a man who is completely shut down emotionally. At least in terms of outward expression; in the brooding way he has of grimly staring in front of him, you never know what all is going on inside his head. Then this changes a bit, but only a bit. There is never a dramatic awakening, just an almost imperceptible loosening up.
One thing I noticed is that, as a farmer, for most of the movie Helmer interacts with the animals as if they are inanimate objects (though frankly that’s not much different from how he interacts with his father or anyone else). You see the contrast with younger people. Two young boys from next door hang around his farm sometimes, and they show a certain fascination with the animals, an interest in quietly petting them, in interacting with them as individuals. Even the teenage farmhand seems to have retained at least some modest amount of the wonder that children routinely have toward animals, as he passively lets I believe it was a calf suckle at his finger contentedly.
Not Helmer though. He is indifferent toward them. Not hostile, for even hostility requires allowing them enough status as significant beings to warrant some emotion, but indifferent.
Until fairly late in the film, that is. It’s a scene I’m not a hundred percent sure I’m interpreting correctly, but Helmer is lying on the ground in the barn, and reaches over and pulls a young lamb—if I remember correctly—to him in what I think is a gesture of affection, and seems to pet it.
The milk guy tells Helmer, seemingly looking meaningfully at him to gauge his reaction, that he will be giving up his job and moving away. I sensed—though in this movie it’s always a matter of educated guesses—that Helmer was a bit taken aback by this, with the thought of, “Oh, have I just let an opportunity go by?” like he would have preferred to be allowed to remain on the fence a while longer as far as whether to allow this person into his life in a more significant way, like he welcomed at least having that option available to him even if he wasn’t going to admit it.
After a long pause, “So you won’t be coming around anymore?” “No.” Another long pause. “Well, good luck.” The milk guy looks like he’d like for there to be something more than that, but that he’s not surprised there isn’t.
There’s even a very slight thaw between Helmer and his father, not to mention finally some hints about their past.
In one scene, Helmer, though first making sure his father is fast asleep, opens up just a bit to him, as one might sit by a gravesite and talk about one’s life to a loved one who has passed. He speaks of the milk guy, of the fact that he is moving away, and of what beautiful hands he has (making their odd non-relationship seem like even more of a gay thing), but then murmurs, “But you wouldn’t understand that. Your hands were only for beating.”
Later, with his father awake now, they exchange a few words in a way that they never did in the first half or more of the movie. They speak of Helmer’s brother who died, and whether the father felt like the wrong son had lived. His father tells him that he knows Helmer always thought that was how he felt, but adds that he no longer remembers if in fact he did. Neither presses the other for more memories, or more frankness.
Then one night the boy, looking decidedly uncertain and uncomfortable as to whether this is appropriate or what the consequences will be, climbs naked into Helmer’s bed, and tentatively reaches to embrace him. Helmer reacts without shock, without anger, yet rejects the advance firmly, pushing the boy off of him and holding him away from him. The confused boy collapses into tears, and Helmer, showing as much warmth as he has shown for anyone in the movie, reaches out and holds him.
So I guess that means it wasn’t his son, and it is indeed some kind of gay thing. But it’s still not at all clear to me why they interacted the way they did from the start. Why did it feel like there was some pre-existing familiarity between them? Why did the reticent Helmer let this boy so readily and immediately into his home and life if he were a total stranger?
Was it some kind of gaydar thing? Like from the moment they met they each sensed the other was gay and that there was a mutual attraction, but neither knew quite what to do about that until finally one of them—the boy—took the initiative? Did Helmer find a worker through some sort of gay social website or something, so each knew before they ever met that there was at least the potential that this would go beyond a working relationship, but when push came to shove Helmer realized he wasn’t ready for that?
Finally, late in the movie the milk guy shows up again. Helmer asks him, “So you’ve come back?” looking pleased I suppose—insofar as he ever looks pleased or manifests any emotion at all—that he has.
Facially the milk guy looks beat up—bruises, cuts and scrapes, a bit of a black eye. Nothing is said by way of explanation (that I picked up on), and Helmer doesn’t ask, in a way that feels like he doesn’t have to because he already knows.
So the opportunity wasn’t lost after all, and now they’re going to be a gay couple? Certainly that isn’t made clear, but that’s my best guess.
Why does he look so battered? Was he involved in some kind of gay bashing incident, maybe hitting on the wrong person in the wrong situation, and he and Helmer need not verbalize it because they both know that that’s simply one of the hazards of being gay like them, and so it can be inferred what happened when you see the results?
Clearly there are numerous scenes that have at least some ambiguity to them (to me). There is one in particular, early in the move, that I didn’t get at all.
After interacting with his father, and clearly experiencing him as a burden, Helmer is standing alone, silently, in the semi-darkness, in the middle of the main room of the house. He takes his dick out and holds it, and continues to stand there. It doesn’t appear from his motions that he’s masturbating. It’s more the body language of someone standing to take a piss. Is he intending to pee on the floor and blame it on his father?, is the first thought I had. Far-fetched, but I couldn’t think of anything more plausible. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t pee though. He just stands there for a while, and then the scene ends.
Like I say, It’s All So Quiet is a very slow movie with only a minimal storyline, and with a great deal of silence. But in its way it’s a surprisingly psychologically intense study of a man who is greatly emotionally—and presumably sexually—repressed, who shows some slight signs of freeing himself as the movie progresses, with a bit of hope at the end that he’s embarking on a relationship with the potential to free him more significantly.