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Witchy women 

Dysfunction defines family in Zus & Zo

Imagine an entire movie dominated by the haranguing, castrating sisters who made Adam Sandler cringe and cower in Punch-Drunk Love. For a film centered on three women, the Dutch film Zus & Zo is remarkably adept at kindling misogyny and loathing for its female characters.

The Witches of Holland -- Sonja (Monic Hendrickx), Wanda (Anneke Blok) and Michelle (Sylvia Poorta) -- are unhappy, dissatisfied sisters caught up in their frenetic, work-filled modern lives. When Sonja, a women's magazine journalist, learns that their brother Nino (Jacob Derwig) is about to be married, the sisters rally in a jittery panic. If Nino does marry, according to their father's will, he will inherit the family's beloved Hotel Paradiso on a gorgeous sliver of Portuguese beachfront.

Though the Chekovian sisters are the kind of perpetually dissatisfied, angst-ridden creatures contemporary cinema often favors, home movies of the trio as teenagers cavorting on that Portuguese beach show that happiness exists as an ideal place -- the Paradiso -- somewhere in the back of their minds. The sisters conspire to do everything in their power to stop Nino's marriage to a sexy young art critic, Bo (Halina Reijn), who has also somehow distracted him from the reality that he is gay.

There may be some nugget of insight buried deep within the confectionary Cool Whip of director Paula van der Oest's unfunny comedy, but viewers will be hard pressed to find it. It is implied that while the sisters pine and fret for their beloved Hotel Paradiso, they basically neglect, ignore and terrorize the loved ones close to them. If only Zus & Zo had the attention span to stick with such a coherent theme. Van der Oest is a filmmaker who suggests the diluted, comic-tragic schizophrenia of late-Robert Altman a la Dr. T & the Women, in which everything is thrown at her cinematic canvas in the hopes that something will stick. You could get whiplash following the various tatters of ideas van der Oest mixes into the brew.

Zus & Zo's portrait of family politics makes even Woody Allen's claustrophobic, ulcerous family members in Hannah and Her Sisters look like the Waltons. Showing her debt to Allen, van der Oest lays the various family neuroses, from adultery to hypochondria, on thick.

Artist Wanda, for example, is acting out some unresolved issues from teenagehood by having an affair with Sonja's unappealing husband Hugo (Theu Boermans), while Sonja nurtures a secret crush on Michelle's submissive doctor husband Jan (Jaap Spijkers).

The three sisters and their immediate family are an insanely codependent lot. They sleep with each other, work with each other and even diagnose each other. Hugo, for instance, is being treated by Jan, who examines the poor guy in an office right off the frantic action of the family's living room.

While the sexual tensions between Wanda and Hugo and Hugo and Sonja simmer weakly, Hugo begins to suspect he suffers from some kind of genital cancer, in one of the film's typically oddball tangential storylines.

As if her evisceration of masculinity weren't thorough enough, van der Oest also includes several weirdly detailed scenes where Hugo has his penis probed and prodded by numerous doctors. Zus & Zo's hurts-so-bad brand of "humor" has a very strange notion of what constitutes prop comedy.

Not content to merely overload her film with storylines and complications too weird and dull to ponder, van der Oest also throws in some garbled pop psychology to boot. Zus & Zo suggests that it was the three sisters dressing Nino up in women's clothing when they were kids that perhaps turned him gay and into a cross-dresser to boot. The denouement, in which all dilemmas are magically resolved in the best tradition of Hollywood pap, suggests a final vision as goofily cheery as the rest of the film is shrill and unpleasant.

felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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