Iris (Julia Akkermans) has a normal middle-class Dutch life, and stays in touch with her aged father and her brother’s family. But everything regular and controllable gets overturned when her father Jan (Johan Leysen) announces that after his 75th birthday, he is going to take his own life. He’s not sick, either mentally or physically; rather his decision seems to him a logical solution to a nagging problem: from here on, life will only decrease in quality and increase in suffering.
The children are shocked, upset, dumbfounded. But while her brother Ivan (Eelco Smits) eventually gets down to scheduling his father’s suicidal proceedings, Iris remains in limbo, completely unmoored and unable to argue with her father’s resolute reasoning. This is fundamentally not something we can discuss and appreciate from different angles in polite conversation over wine or while doing the dishes. To Iris, it’s unnecessary, traumatic, and insane.
There’s a moment in Pink Moon that perfectly encapsulates the complex psychological effects this premise has on its main character. At one point, the family gets out of the car with Iris in the backseat, but the child lock stops her from opening the door, leaving her struggling and stuck while everyone else continues without her. It’s a striking, amusing moment of childishness, with Iris reduced to an infantile status in her inability to process her dad’s premature passing. She is stuck grieving someone who’s still alive—and Pink Moon surprisingly wants to make it as funny as possible.
It’s likely you’ll spend the first act of Pink Moon reflecting that 75 is a bit young to want out of life, before realising it’s these preheld principles that director Floor van der Meulen wants to challenge. There are no set rules for human life. Rather, we internalise tons of cultural beliefs that can reduce the agency and quality of life for elderly or unwell people. Van der Meulen’s film handles these confronting ideas with a nimble awkwardness, with Emo Weemhoff’s cinematography picking up every elongated silence in lengthy, hand-held shots (both van der Meulen and Weemhoff have experience with documentary filmmaking).
But the aesthetic choices take a backseat to the writing and characters—or rather, they support them. Working from Bastiaan Kroeger’s taut, incisive screenplay, van der Meulen often frames our characters in empty rooms, dwarfed by pieces of furniture or cramped with someone in a bathroom stall. The style emphasises performances that manage to balance nuance and delicacy with arresting, funny personality.
Akkermans shines when showcasing Iris’ immaturity, leaning into each and every moment of passive-aggression like her life depended on it—whether it’s marking her territory on family belongings as if her sheet of stickers were a war flag, or over-enthusiastically guiding a prospective buyer around Jan’s home. We see here how much strain there is for her to “go with the flow”; she’s singled out in rejecting everyone else’s quiet conformity, and like an angsty teenager, rebels against parental authority once more.
But maybe, van der Meulen argues, you can find peace in such a situation. Realising that you can’t change someone’s mind helps you let go of the urgent panic you feel by trying.
In response, Leysen deftly illustrates how familiar Jan is with all his daughter’s erratic behavioural turns. He has, after all, gone through her childhood already. When he has to collect her from a fast food chain she slept in after a spiralling night out, he walks to her with the heavy sympathetic disappointment many of us remember from drunken youthful displays. He’s willing to humour some unhealthy impulses, remaining resolute about ending his life, but also willing to give people room to struggle with his choice.
It’s a process hindered by a lack of actual, honest communication. There’s so much that’s unspoken between father and daughter in every scene they share; having two characters unwilling to communicate their true feelings results in a tension that makes every supporting character feel completely secondary.
It’s something Pink Moon’s narrative also seems aware of; the film’s third act sheds all unnecessary characters and displaces father and daughter to snowy mountains where their volatile dynamic can be confronted in a way it couldn’t back in stiflingly regular society. But now that there are no distractions, this sequence only confirms a distance between Jan and Iris, visualised in a pane of frosted glass being fitted between the two characters, making her father forever distorted and opaque to her. But maybe, van der Meulen argues, you can find peace in such a situation. Realising that you can’t change someone’s mind helps you let go of the urgent panic you feel by trying.
Who’s really being selfish in Pink Moon? Is it Jan by not considering the wishes of those who love him, or Iris who wants his death to be on her terms, in a way she can control? Jan is clearly framed as someone with more honour, distinction, and clear-mindedness; Iris is rendered a whimpering, tantruming child. But to judge who is being unreasonable in Pink Moon is to assess from a distance an incredibly emotionally charged dilemma, one that objective reason or logic cannot help. Instead, Pink Moon relishes in thorniness and discomfort, arguing that these are the truest, most human responses.
Even though she ultimately doesn’t get what she wants, Iris ends up most able to process her father’s impending death. For all his careful planning and unaffected attitude, Ivan breaks at the last moment from the strain of keeping his emotions in check and can’t be present for Jan’s suicide. There’s shades of a crisis of masculinity in him, a rejection of vulnerability that is ultimately ill-fitting for processing Jan’s death, whereas Iris, in her untempered stropping, is more secure.
Iris stays with Jan to the end, not without showing one last burst of resistance by blocking Jan’s path to his deathbed—a piece of slapstick her father turns into a comic waltz. It’s an incredibly affecting image, watching a stubborn child stand in the way of the beloved parent who wants to leave them. How else should we react when faced with the thought that we’re not enough to make someone want to stay? Pink Moon doesn’t seek to answer that, instead encouraging us to feel as freely as possible, in the hopes that chaos and immaturity can help prepare us for the worst.
Pink Moon made its UK premiere at the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival. Read our exclusive interview with Floor van der Meulen here.
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