By: Emily von Seele
Theo Maassen’s debut feature, Billy, is a black comedy that explores the darker side of art, fame, and creative partnerships. Ventriloquist Gerard de Groot (Bruno Vanden Broecke) initially leapt to stardom as the result of an altercation with a surly judge on a comedy reality show. Despite the 15 minutes of fame nature of his debut, he managed to stay on top of the entertainment business for the next decade with his act, a back and forth conversation with his overly surly, filterless dummy, Billy. Gerard and Billy built and empire together and it seemed that nothing could bring them down.
Things begin to change when the possibility of romance enters the picture, pulling the duo in different directions. As Billy begins to fall for super fan Belinda (Ellen Parren), Gerard finds himself having feelings for his next door neighbor, Merel (Christine de Boer). In an effort to take control over his own life, Gerard decides to separate from Billy, taking him off of his arm once and for all and locking him inside a safe. He has decided that Billy has exerted enough control over their lives and that the time has come for him to strike out on his own.
The trouble is that Gerard is not nearly as funny, charismatic, or successful on his own. His personal interactions are awkward and forced without Billy’s banter, his act is all but useless without a puppet to perform with, and he knows that he wants to make a fresh start. He tries shifting his career to music, but the results are less than stellar. Gerard must come to terms with his limitations and find balance in the partnership that has begun to overwhelm and dominate his life.
Maassen very deliberately plays up the ambiguity of Billy. He is most definitely an extension of Gerard, who is clearly controlling his voice and movement, but at the same time, he is very much his own independent character. At once, he embodies an unbridled confidence that Gerard lacks and often wishes he had, and he’s also the personification of doubt that everyone experiences from time to time. Billy is very much the voice inside all of us that says we’re not good enough. He constantly berates, belittles, and insults Gerard, bringing to the surface every self-doubt that exists in the darkest corners of Gerard’s mind. He gives voice to the insecure, angry side of Gerard’s personality, but has enough independence to be able to do so as a separate character. It makes for a fascinating partnership onscreen. Gerard and Billy, though two halves of the same being, function as two different personas.
Through this partnership, Maassen is able to touch on a number of different themes, highlighting toxic relationships, addiction, creative struggles, and the desire to be successful. At its heart, Billy is the story of a performer struggling to find a new direction in his career. Gerard finds himself at a place that is creatively stifling, no longer productive, and even hurtful. He disbands his act and vows to separate himself from Billy entirely, but finds that his audience is not supportive of his new plans. All they want is what they know — the chemistry that Gerard and Billy had onstage together.
The film wraps up a little too neatly at the end, but the journey remains the most interesting part of the story. The meditation on creativity and toxic relationships drives the film forward and leads to some of the most interesting moments, and in that regard, Billy is a success.