The synopsis of Alexandra's Project sounds like another film in that vein: A housewife takes out her marital frustrations on her hapless husband. But director/writer Rolf de Heer has crafted something different here – on the surface it shares a great deal with the aforementioned films, but instead it becomes a test of how much revenge can be too much – where does revenge stop and simple cruelty start?
Steve works a title-less job in a nameless company, making enough money to support his wife, his son and his daughter while maintaining a nice home in faceless suburbia. His frazzled wife, meanwhile, has a surprise for Steve on his birthday; he comes home to an empty, dark house, with the television and VCR set up in the middle of the room and a tape labeled "Play Me" on the stand – and what Steve is about to see will change his life permanently.
The trap for a film such as Alexandra's Project is for director/writer Rolf de Heer to write Alexandra as the woman scorned in such a way that we sadistically cheer for her to exact her revenge on her hapless husband. That would allow us to feel good, righteous even, as we watch Alexandra torture Steve.
But de Heer does not give the audience that easy way out. Steve has not been a great husband, it turns out, but does he deserve all that which he receives? Is Alexandra another spurned housewife or is she something more sinister? The answers to these questions and more are open-ended and debatable. There are no easy answers here.
Helen Buday steals the show as Alexandra, who vacillates between "emotional wreck" and "conniving shrew" without ever dipping into caricature. She is, by turn, cold, calculating and an absolute wreck, and her emotional changes are so much fun to watch. Credit should also go to Gary Sweet. As Steve, Sweet could have fallen right into the trap of playing the same note throughout the film. He could have been in the same tortured state for 45 straight minutes. Instead, he found enough levels and plateaus to slow his mental descent.
However, it can be very difficult to keep the tension up for the length of the videocassette. In fact, Steve often gets up to break the tension for himself – a good character decision, but from a cinematic standpoint it breaks the tension for the viewer as well.
In addition, the first 40 minutes of the film are slow, slower and slowest. de Heer takes great pains to establish the family dynamic at play here, but 10 of those 40 minutes could easily have been cut, making the action of pressing play on the VCR the first plot point and setting the viewer up for the shock to come.
(NOTE: The film has not been rated by the MPAA, but features profanity, nudity and sex. It would likely be a "hard R.")