If you liked The Royal Tenenbaums, you'll love Zus & Zo because it's almost as offbeat and considerably more upbeat than the Wes Anderson film. Dutch director Paula van der Oest manages just the right tone and level of eccentricity in this funny yet sympathetic story about a mildly dysfunctional family and each member's search for a sexual comfort zone. It's not rated, but, aside from a brief glimpse of buttocks and breasts, there's no nudity and very little in the way of strong language. Only adult themes . . . layered thicker than a warehouse full of mattresses.
The film (in Dutch with English subtitles) begins home-movie-style, with shots of three sisters frolicking on the beach at the family's beloved Hotel Paraiso, their father's resort on the coast of Portugal. Some 20 years later the sisters are more emotionally attached to the idyllic place than they are physically, but that attachment provides a foundation for the plot. Their deceased father arranged his will so that the siblings would have an equal share in the place unless their little brother, Nino (Jacob Derwig), whom the father suspected was gay, married by the age of 33. Needless to say, when Nino announces his engagement to Bo (Halina Reijn), a younger, free-spirited woman, just three weeks before his 33rd birthday, it rocks the sisters' worlds—not that they were all that stable to begin with.
Michelle (Sylvia Poorta), the oldest, has a passionless marriage and lavishes all of her emotional attention on a bevy of adopted children and errant strays that she has a penchant for taking in. Wanda (Anneke Blok) is a struggling artist who's latest artistic brainchild is to collect test tubes of semen from the men she beds (including one sister's husband) and incorporate that into an exhibition and performance. And Sonja (Monic Hendrickx) is a writer of the Carrie Bradshaw sort, pigeonholed to write about sex in her city when she'd rather be engaged in serious work. Her latest assignment? To write about women's sexual fantasies, starting with the three sisters. There are plenty of sexual sideplots, but the main narrative centers on each sister's fantasies of inheriting the hotel. Separately and together they try to devise ways to sabotage Nino's wedding, but when Bo invites her sisters-in-law-to-be to Portugal to help her plan the wedding, expect the unexpected. What looks like a disaster could actually be a marriage-of-convenience made in heaven . . . and vice versa. There are attempts at seduction, persuasion, reorientation, and even truth-telling. "What would you want with our little loser?" one of the sisters asks a bewildered Bo. The wild card in this high-stakes game? Handsome television chef Felix Delicious (Pieter Embrechis), Nino's old boyfriend, and the sister's last hope.
The script is smart, the writing sassy, the pacing crisp, the acting wholly believable, and the film editing and cinematography interesting but not intrusive—which is why it's no surprise that this slick comedy was a nominee for Best Foreign Language Picture at the 2002 Academy Awards. Van der Oest does a good job of shifting from person to person so that narrative threads are neither lost nor prematurely tied up, and also manages to break emotional scenes with wake-you-up moments of higher energy or humor. Theu Boermans turns in a fine comic-relief performance as Hugo, one of the sister's husbands afflicted with an abnormally high sex-drive and a mysterious sexual ailment that has him forever spreading his legs in the stirrups for doctors of both genders.
The film is presented in widescreen anamorphic format (1.85:1 aspect ratio), and the transfer is pretty good but not perfect. Colors are sharp and clearly delineated and details aren't lost in the shadows, but there's a slight graininess in some frames (no discernable pattern) and flickers of dust and dirt here and there. Overall, though, it's nothing that really detracts from the viewing experience. the picture is crisp. English subtitles can be turned off, for those who know Dutch and don't need them. For the rest of us dependent on the translation, at times a complete dialogue exchange flashes on the screen, and if you're a fast reader you may find yourself reading a line before it's delivered. That's slightly jarring, but it doesn't happen often enough to where it becomes bothersome.
No serious complaints with the soundtrack, which is a Dolby 5.1 Digital mix. The back speakers picked up enough occasional ambient sound to remind you it's surround sound, though most of the sound is directed through the center front and main speakers. In scenes with music (loud or background) there's more rear speaker action. As for overall sound quality, there seems to be a lot of deep tones, so that the voices sometimes seem trapped in their own resonance, the way it sounds when you speak into a container. It's enough to where you'll occasionally notice and play with your bass controls, but, again, not enough to where it will annoy you to distraction.
Unfortunately, there's not much here in the way of bonus features. There's a list of the five films the director has made since 1988, and a trailer. Other than a handful of trailers for other Wellspring offerings—Ran, Strange Planet, Les Destinees, Yi Yi, and Russian Ark—that's it. Filmmakers outside the U.S. always seem to take more risks and try more things, whether it's an odd camera angle, an extraordinarily long continuous shot, or a pensive moment that seems to go on, as it does in real life, forever. It would have been nice to have had at least a brief interview with Van der Oest, or even some of the cast members.
Zus & Zo has the feel of a slick, hip, made-for-the-masses movie, while retaining an identity and style all it's own. The upbeat ending may seem a bit too facile for some viewers, given the characters' drives and motivations, but despite the O.Henry-style finale it somehow works. And what's wrong with adding a sprinkle of upbeat to the offbeat? Van der Oest is is able to achieve a satisfying balance of both. Moreover, Zus & Zo is that rare comic masterpiece that manages to add just the right measure of pathos to bring the characters' humanity into revealing focus. It's a warm and funny movie.