Category: Belgian Cinema

Une vie démente (Madly in Life, Belgium 2020)

Alex and Néomie face one of many agencies concerned about Suzanne’s behaviour – but she’s busy eating sweets

Une vie démente is a francophone film and the first feature of a filmmaking couple, Raphaël Balboni and Ann Sirot based in Brussels. It follows several short films and contributions to portmanteau films. The film has an English language title which I don’t think is helpful. The Belgian title is more to the point – this is a film about understanding and learning to live with a form of dementia. It is promoted as a comedy-drama but I think that probably depends on the individual and what they have experienced  about dealing with dementia sufferers. It is, I think, an intelligent, human and very worthwhile film which uses elements of humour very well. I’m aware that there is a particularly Belgian form of humour and that may be evident here.

I’m certainly not an expert on dementia but I am very aware of it. One of the most important points to take on board is that there are all kinds of degenerative diseases which might grouped under a general heading of dementia, but they do manifest themselves in different ways. In this film a couple in their early thirties, Alex and Noémie, gradually come to realise that Alex’s mother Suzanne is beginning to act strangely. It’s only a short film (under 90 minutes) so the narrative progresses quite quickly and soon Suzanne is no longer capable of looking after herself and is becoming a possible danger to others. It is particularly unfortunate for the couple because they are hoping to start a family and caring for Suzanne raises questions about whether they should go ahead at this time.

Suzanne in her garden trying to understand the robot mower’s movements

The condition from which Suzanne suffers is named as ‘semantic dementia’ which refers to the inability to connect words to specific meanings. I don’t know if what we see is a realistic depiction of ‘SD’ but it is significant that Suzanne has been in charge of a gallery or at least putting on art exhibitions. She has a beautiful and spacious house and garden and a collection of valuable art objects. Alex works in a the same business and Noémie is a secondary school art teacher. The directors have chosen to incorporate ideas about art and design into the film’s mise en scène, creating some effects which are initially subtle and eventually quite startling and amusing. Suzanne doesn’t lose her interest in art and is particularly interested in a little girl, the daughter of one of Alex and Néomie’s friends who is clearly creative.

The film’s mise en scène echoes Suzanne’s fascination with art and gradually becomes more emphatic

Suzanne’s behaviour creates bizarre social situations which are the basis of several possibly comic moments. Interactions with various officials and agencies are presented in an original way so we only see Suzanne sitting alongside Alex and Néomie as questions are asked (see top image). These scenes too are handled in relation to ideas about colour and design. It is Alex as Suzanne’s closest kin who is the source of most of the film’s emotional heft. He has to learn how to communicate and adapt to his mother’s condition and I did find this moving. There is no cure for SD so the ultimate aim must be to find a way of dealing with the condition and how it impacts on everyone. I think the film’s ending is sad but also uplifting. The critical response and the small group of IMDb ‘users’ appear to agree. The film has won recognition and prizes at various film festivals. The performances by the four principals are very good: Jo Deseure is Suzanne, Jean Le Peltier is Alex and Lucie Debay is Néomie. Gilles Remiche is the carer, Kevin, a potentially difficult role that I think is well-written and performed. The film looks very good with ‘Scope photography by Jorge Piquer Rodríguez. Music is also important in the film, as it is in the lives of many dementia sufferers since enjoyment and recall of music are often retained when other facilities are lost.

Suzanne is a woman who has family and a generous life style when we first meet her. We aren’t shown all the procedures necessary to put her financial affairs into order after she has lost control or interest in her affairs, but she owns art objects that are valuable. Of course many dementia suffers don’t have both support and resources and to that extent the film presents an idealised perspective on what such a diagnosis might mean. Even so I think writer-directors Balboni and Sirot are to be congratulated on a début film that entertains while presenting an insight into a condition that will be something more and more of us will encounter. I don’t know whether the film has yet achieved a wider international distribution beyond the francophone world but I hope it does.

Beyond the Horizon (Le milieu de l’horizon, Belgium-Switzerland 2019)

Nicole leads her husband and son

This is a hybrid drama presented as a francophone film in My French Film Festival. It is also available on UK streamers via the BFI for a few more days (i.e. BFI Player subscription, Amazon Prime and Apple) and possibly on Google and Apple for longer. Adapted by Joanne Giger from a novel by Roland Buti, this is the second feature by the Swiss director Delphine Lehericey, now living in Belgium. The film is an official Belgian-Swiss co-production. It has quite a starry cast and has won a positive critical response at festivals and subsequently gained distribution in a number of territories. I am not totally convinced by the film but it is certainly worth catching.

Gus, who watches most things

I’m calling it a hybrid simply because all the reviews and most of the promotional material I’ve seen categorise the film as a ‘coming-of-age’ story. While that is certainly an important element in the film and the narrative is focused on 13 year-old Gus, that isn’t a complete description. And apart from anything else ‘coming of age’ is a very loose concept related to individuals and occurring at very different ages. Sometimes it is sexual maturity, sometimes it is about adult responsibility, sometimes it is simply about the ending of childhood. Just as important in this case is a natural phenomenon and a couple of social issues which loom large in the lives of a family in 1976 on a farm somewhere in rural Europe. Anyone over the age of 50 will now remember 1976 as the time of the great heat wave and drought. It was a momentous year in my life in the UK but fortunately I wasn’t in a rural area and I remember the heat rather than the drought – but farming communities in Central Europe must have suffered. This film was actually shot in Macedonia.  I’m not sure why (apart from wider European funding) but it works well as a landscape for drought.

Rudi, whose communication is minimal

The family is headed by Nicole (Laetitia Casta) and Jean (Thibaut Evrard). Jean’s father Annibal (Patrick Descamps) is still alive and the children are Gus (Luc Bruchez) and Léa (Lisa Harder). There is also Rudi (Fred Hotier), a young man with some form of learning difficulty. I wasn’t sure of his status but one review I read stated he is a cousin of Gus and therefore perhaps the nephew of Nicole. At 13 Gus is still quite small as a late developer, but his hormones are starting to kick in and early on we see him stealing a magazine of nudes to add to his usual reading of comic books. He will have other experiences that are more tactile and the six weeks of summer holiday drought and heat are quite eventful. One thing is clear and that is that he is close to his mother. Luc Bruchez was appearing in his first film and the fact that he is on screen for most senes adds to his excellent début. His haircut and small stature reminded me of the Small Faces, the UK band from the mid 1960s.

Cécile, whose arrival causes changes

1976 is an important period of feminist consciousness (see films like Agnes Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (France 1977) and Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (France 2015)). In this film Nicole meets the divorced Cécile and a relationship begins. Cécile’s arrival on the scene has an impact on most of the other family members – and many others in the area. The farm needs money and Nicole decides to work part-time at the Post Office with Cécile. Daughter Léa also responds to Cécile’s arrival but I think her story is underplayed in the film (I couldn’t find an image from the film that includes Léa).

A long shot of the Macedonian landscape as Gus finds his grandfather’s horse, thanks to his friend Mado

The males in the family do most of the actual farming and it is very difficult with crops and animals dying in the heat and drought. This is a double issue. Jean has invested in some intensively-raised poultry, not a good idea for sustainable farming, even back in the 1970s. The maize crop is ruined and the dairy cows fed on expensive stored feed are the only part of the farm generating an income. In some ways scenes reminded me of foot and mouth disease in the UK and the thousands of cattle and sheep that had to be burned. If you are upset by animals dying this probably isn’t the film for you. The other factor is the long-term economic decline of the family farm. Jean doesn’t want to work for anyone else but he hasn’t got the resources to keep the farm going. Rudi is a willing worker but Gus is reluctant and works only out of duty and family pressure. Jean is a hard worker but it isn’t enough.

Gus and his father, Jean, with a trailer of dead chickens

The cast are all very good and the cinematography by the very experienced Christophe Beaucarne is excellent. Léa is part of the school orchestra and some of the discussions about music are interesting (the Ramones aren’t allowed onto the radio for instance, so UK style punk won’t be having much of an impact). I read one review that suggested that the director consciously avoids conventional storytelling. That’s an interesting point. I felt that some characters who seemed important were not really explored and although there is a narrative climax when the rains finally come, I didn’t feel that there was any kind of conclusive resolution. I suspect that what we are meant to take from the final image is simply that after the summer of 1976 the family will never be quite the same again.

Working Girls (Filles de joie, Belgium-France 2020)

‘My French Film Festival’ is now running online until February 15. There are several features films that stand out plus a selection of short films. I picked out Working Girls for two reasons. It’s a Belgian film featuring three women living in France, in Roubaix, who work in a brothel in Belgium to make ends meet. I also recognised three of the leads in the film and especially Sara Forestier who impressed me greatly in Suzanne (France 2013), a film by Katell Quillévéré. I was also surprised to learn that the film had been selected as the Belgian entry for the 2020 ‘Best International Feature’ Oscar awards. It didn’t sound like the kind of film the Academy voters were likely to go for.

Conso leaving her high rise to join the other two for the drive

I’m interested in Roubaix as a location because it’s twinned with Bradford in the UK, sharing the traditional importance of the woollen industry and the more recent development of a significant Muslim population. Roubaix has been used as a location in several French films, most notably in the films of Arnaud Desplechin. Unfortunately, in this film, all we see of the town is a block of high-rise flats and suburban streets (which may well have been shot in a different location). The three women of the title meet in a housing estate car park and drive into Belgium to work. The only significant image of their journey is the road sign (with the EU flag) announcing they are entering Belgium. It  is a poignant moment for a viewer in ‘beleaguered Brexit Britain’. I’m wondering what will happen on Eurostar trains heading for Brussels when we can travel again after the pandemic?

The ‘rest room’ at the brothel

I’ve read several reviews and comments about the film, many of which stress that this is “not a film about prostitution”. That’s an odd statement I think. I think the source of this is the director’s statement that the film doesn’t cover some of the conventional themes associated with brothels in films.The film represents what goes on in a brothel, it deals to some extent with the procedures of the brothel and it focuses on the lives of these three ‘ordinary’ women whose circumstances have pushed them into this kind of work. In one sense the film is unusual in that the three women are French rather than migrants from Eastern Europe or further afield. (Wikipedia suggests that many prostitutes in Belgium are Bulgarian.) The last similar film I can remember is The Receptionist (Taiwan-UK 2016) in which the ‘girls’ are from China or Taiwan. The women in Roubaix don’t have to worry about immigration authorities but they do have lives not connected to sex work (they work under pseudonyms to protect their identities) and these can also be problematic. Axelle (Sara Forestier) is a mother of three small children who are looked after by their grandmother. The man she claims is not her husband is Yann (Nicolas Cazalé) who is around and seems to think he has rights re the children. Dominque or ‘Do’ is played by Noémie Lvovsky who was so good as the mother in Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (France 2015). ‘Do’ works as a nurse on the night shift. She has a husband and two teenage children to support. The third woman is Conso (Annabelle Lengronne) who is the youngest of the three, living on her own. In some ways she is the most vulnerable of the three. The three are aggressive towards each other but also supportive, realising that they must protect each other.

Axelle with her youngest child and her ex-partner Yann

The film opens with the three seemingly burying a body in the rain and mud. The rest of the narrative is therefore a long flashback, at the end of which we will discover the identity of the body. There is also a three-part structure to the flashback so we focus on each of the three women in turn. It’s significant that the writer on the film is Anne Paulicevich who spent a long time researching the background to her story which was inspired by a newspaper article. She visited a brothel regularly for several months talking informally to the ‘working girls’. The Internet Movie Database credits her as co-director of the film with Frédéric Fonteyne. Cineuropa and the film’s Press Pack list her as ‘artistic director’. I’m not quite sure what that means but I suspect that she worked closely with the three female leads and with the cinematographer Juliette Van Dormael. The brothel is, in this film, a female space, at least in the back room where the women chat. I don’t see a Hollywood remake in the current climate, even with the relatively small amount of nudity. The actual sexual encounters are brief and never really gratuitous, but there is also violence. The violence comes from men both as clients and outside the brothel, but we learn little about them.

Do entertains one of her older clients

I’m not sure what to make of the film. This kind of subject matter is always difficult to handle and to pitch to distributors and audiences. Paulicevich says in the Press Pack that she sees the women as ‘heroes’ and indeed the most successful aspect of the film is the interaction between the women and how they overcome problems. Paulicevich herself wrote the film because she had only just become a mother with a baby daughter and had left an abusive relationship. Frédéric Fonteyne reveals that the film had a working title of La frontière, suggesting both the border between the two EU countries, the border between genres, social norms, emotions etc. I think that might have been a better title but he said that he realised it would be misleading for audiences if they thought it implied trafficking. Fonteyne suggests it is a ‘political film’ in its treatment of violence towards women and female solidarity. I’m not sure about that and I’d like to see some reviews by women. I understand that prostitution is not ‘standardised’ across the EU. Belgian policy is to regulate an industry that is not illegal but in France brothels are illegal so that presumably explains the original newspaper story.

The film was low budget and shot in just 30 days partly in the brothel used for the research. It is clearly an achievement to produce such a film and the performances from the three leads are outstanding. I’m not sure if in the end Paulicevich Fonteyne have achieved their aims but I found the film engaging and worthwhile, mainly for the melodrama of the three women’s interactions, and I think it is definitely worth watching.

Mothers’ Instinct (Duelles, Belgium-France 2018)

duelles_0hero

Neighbourly trouble

Logo MYFFF Noir - AnglaisDirector Olivier Masset-Depasse, who co-scripted with Giordano Gederlini and François Verjans (based on the novel Derrière la haine by Barbara Abel), delivers a delicious thriller that at least one review suggests is Hitchcockian. It certainly opens with a master class in misdirection as Alice (Veerle Baetens, who was also excellent in Broken Circle Breakdown), prepares a surprise for her close friend and neighbour Céline (Anne Coesens). The film’s set in early ’60s Brussels and the milieux can’t help referencing (for me at least) the television series Mad Men (US, 2007-15), particularly as there’s a passing resemblance between Baetens and January Jones, who played Betty. The set decoration (by Séverine Closset) is as  immaculate as the bourgeois lifestyle of the two couples as are Thierry Delettre’s costumes. The period is further mimicked with the gorgeous cinematography, by Hichame Alouie, which could be mistaken for the Technicolor of the era.

It’s a thriller so a disruption of some violence is necessary but I won’t spoil that. Suffice to say the relationship between the two, who at the start are like loving sisters, changes. The film is impressive in how it presents the psychological pressures and responses to the situation; it is entirely convincing on how two people, who are very close, can suddenly become suspicious of each other. Jessica Kiang, in her Variety review, nails it when she describe the protagonists as ‘expressive but unreadable’: ideal performers to keep the audience guessing.

Where the film trumps Hitchcock is the focus is entirely on the women; the husbands are little more than marginal. While Hitchcock used his ‘ice cool’ blondes to investigate his idea of female sexuality, here the women as mothers have agency. The men spend their time failing to acknowledge difficulty or, in the case of one, abnegating all responsibility.

I’m surprised the film wasn’t released, as far as I can tell it was restricted to festival screenings, in the UK as the Mad Men-setting could have offered a cultural handhold for those reluctant to try out difference. Then again, UK’s insularity seems to be peaking (I won’t mention Brexit); one block of flats in Norwich had messages posted on doors demanding only English be spoken. Typically, there was a grammatical error in the message emphasising the poor education of the idiot who seems to think Britain is, and was, a great country.

LIFF 2019 #2: Ghost Tropic (Belgium-Netherlands 2019)

5

A taunting advert?

My first screening at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival proved to be a treat. At festivals I tend to choose films that fit with the time I have available rather than choosing specific titles. Whilst this is not necessarily the best way to select viewings, if I had read the synopsis about this film (‘the gentle nocturnal odyssey of a cleaning lady through the streets of Brussels’) I might have demurred. In the event the film was a riveting journey that inverted the usual representation of the night as a place of threat.

Saadia Bentaïeb plays Khadija beautifully, the cleaning woman who falls asleep on the last metro and hasn’t the money to get a taxi home so has to walk. The picaresque narrative allows us to meet some denizens of the dark who are, of course, ordinary people. Writer-director Bas Devos chooses not to laden these encounters with significance, though it’s not without social comment. The image above of the tropical island is an advert that tells Khadija to ‘get lost’; it’s a brilliant double entendre for we can assume that she could never afford to visit such a place on holiday.

Cinematographer Grimm Vandekerckhove manages to make the dark city streets look fascinating; out of focus coloured lights (for example, cars’ brake lights) give an abstract beauty and Devos’ framing is often quite brilliant. In the metro, for example, Khadija seems to be in a small window on a wall and then the train enters the station and we understand our position in relation to her. It’s a way defamiliarising the night, just as its representation of the dark defies expectations. It’s shot on 16mm and, unsurprisingly given the light levels, is very grainy which works perfectly well except occasionally it appears to be pouring with rain such is the grain.

I was confused by a couple of things. Near the start Khadija’s at a jovial meeting where Congo is mentioned; suggesting the tropics and I wasn’t clear what was going on. And at the end, there’s a (presumably) fantasy sequence on a tropical beach, like the one in the ad: is it her younger self we see or her daughter, who she encounters on her journey home, in the future? On the soundtrack we occasionally hear (the sound design is quite brilliant – Boris Debackere) tropical birds and there is a ‘magic realist’ moment concerning a dog. My uncertainty about these scenes certainly didn’t detract from the film and ensured we understood Devos’ intention wasn’t as a documentarian.

Incidentally the film had the best credits at the end: a blank black screen, apart from ‘A film by’ in the top left hand corner, is then filled with names with gaps in between them. The gaps are then populated, one at a time, with the role the person took. Yes, a film is made by everyone involved.

A film by everyone

Walter Presents: Code 37, Sex Crimes (Belgium 2009)

The vice squad team in Ghent: (from left) Kevin (Gilles De Schrijver), Charles (Marc Lauwrys), Hannah (Veerle Baetens) and Bob (Michael Pas)

‘Walter Presents’ is the ‘authored brand’ of foreign language TV dramas offered by UK broadcaster Channel 4 via selected slots on its secondary channel More4 and on SVOD via its All4 streaming service. ‘Walter’ is Walter Iuzzolino, the Italian TV producer who finds the programming for Channel 4. The SVOD service is free to access in the UK, though it requires registration. I’m accessing it via Apple TV. Code 37 (the original title) is unusual in being an archive series/serial which ran in Belgium for three seasons in 2009, 2011 and 2012 – 39 episodes (of approx. 47 mins) in all. There was a standalone feature film in 2011, also titled Code 37. I’ve watched the first half of Season 1 and it’s been an interesting experience.

The narrative is set in the Flemish city region of Ghent (Gent) in East Flanders. The dialogue is mainly in Flemish with English subs and the occasional phrase in English. Episode 1 begins with the new boss of the city’s vice squad, Hannah Maes (Veerle Baetens) arriving on her first day at a murder scene in a hotel. She meets her new team and swiftly claims the case (of a guest murdered in her room) ahead of the homicide squad because, she argues, the woman in her 30s was clearly strangled during a ‘choke sex’ act. I’m not sure that the narrative establishes how this could be proven – i.e. whether this was a sex ‘game’ gone wrong or a deliberate act of murder. The episodes appear to be organised as one case per episode, so the team have barely 40 minutes to find the person responsible. In addition this first episode shows Hannah settling in to her new apartment after returning from working with American crime teams in Chicago. There is also a brief flashback to something that happened several years earlier in her parent’s home. This was clearly traumatic and marks Hannah as a young woman who is driven by her early experience of violent crime. Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is a possible influence on the script and I note that Veerle Baetens once starred in a theatrical musical production of Salander’s ‘heroine’ model, ‘Pippa Longstocking’.

Code 37 is in many ways a conventional crime series. Hannah relaxes by playing vinyl records (her mother’s collection’) of classic Motown. One element that is different is Hannah’s ‘team’ which comprises three typical misfits. Charles is an asthmatic chain smoker close to retirement and Kevin is a young man with blonde curls which along with his wide grin make him appear like a naughty choirboy. He is the ‘computer wiz’. Finally there is Bob, the macho slob who cracks bad jokes and cranks out the sexist remarks about Hannah – out of her hearing.

This unlikely team is supposed to investigate ‘sex crimes’ and it does mean a slightly different approach to the standard police procedural. I imagine that a ‘vice squad’, like a ‘drugs squad’ will see a different balance in their work between the private and the personal. They will spend time in an alternative world which they need to understand. They may have to go undercover and they may have to make moral decisions about behaviour that they might not otherwise meet. The broadcaster may feel that with an SVOD offer it is possible to represent sexual acts more graphically than on terrestrial channels. This series has been sold to North American channels and I’ve seen one commentator suggesting that this European show might ramp up the sex but moderate the violence compared to US series. I’m not sure that is necessarily something I’ve noticed so far. The show comes complete with warnings about sex and violence but the registration process would be unlikely keep out the average savvy 11 year-old.

The weakness of the format is the short amount of time in which to set up a case for the team to investigate and apprehend the culprit(s) as well as exploring Hannah’s back story. But do the writers and director manage to get round the problem? I admit that after a couple of episodes I couldn’t really understand why the series seems to be so highly rated on IMDb. But there was something there that kept me watching (the box set binge attraction?). I’m glad I did because after eight episodes I’m enjoying the show a lot. The three team members who I thought were comic characters are being gradually fleshed out. Bob has got his comeuppance and Charles and Kevin prove to be competent and interesting characters with back stories that are slowly being revealed.

Veerle Baetens is the star attraction as Hannah and a strong addition to the growing group of female leads in TV crime fictions.

But the show stands or falls on Veerle Baeten’s Hannah and she is very good indeed. The character is similar in some ways to both Lisbeth Salander and Saga Noren but she isn’t as extreme as either of them. She has two other narratives to negotiate. The first is the trauma of a ‘home invasion’ at her parents’ house. Hannah is now trying to re-open the cold case and investigate it on her own. She is also trying to decide what to do about a possible relationship with her neighbour who lives on a barge behind her apartment. The cold case is introduced by the same flashback sequences each time Hannah visits her father. I do find this irritating but gradually more is being revealed so I’ll live with it. But the biggest surprise is the variety of cases the squad is required to investigate and the ways in which Hannah not only organises the work efficiently but also how she deals sympathetically and patiently with a wide range of victims and perpetrators. The code by which Hannah operates is spelled out in the first episode – if a sexual act between two people is consensual by both parties that’s OK. But if someone is forced it becomes a crime to be investigated. Presumably this will eventually be tested in an episode that involves BDSM? It is tested out in a different way in Episode 2 in which the team discover that a young woman is an exhibitionist who likes to strip and dance provocatively for a man in an apartment some distance from her high rise block. She sends him texts when she is about to start and he uses a telescope to watch her. This is clearly consensual but voyeuristic behaviour like this is, in general terms a crime, as Hannah reveals to the man whose wife and children are unaware of what he is doing. Because the young woman is involved in another incident which involves violence and is connected to her exhibitionism, the voyeur must be investigated. This risks his exposure and the possible break-up of his marriage and/or the loss of his job as a schoolteacher. This strikes me as an interesting moral dilemma for Hannah and her team – and one repeated in different ways throughout the series.

I’m assuming Belgian law is not dissimilar to that in France and other parts of Europe (i.e. it differs in some respect from English Common Law) but still the actions of the vice squad in arresting suspects and interrogating them seems to be free of some of the restrictions which have become common in UK crime fiction narratives. Again the short time available may mean that everything is streamlined for the narrative. The series has a team of writers and directors, the most used being the writer Hola Guapa (13 episodes) and the director Jakob Verbruggen (19 episodes). Verbruggen went on to direct both US and UK series including The Fall in the UK in 2013. Jan Vancaillie photographed the whole of series 1. I thought at first that the format would limit the range of locations but we do eventually get to see a bit more of the Ghent city region which has roughly the same population as Bradford (around half a million) but not the same range of landscapes I suspect. Ghent also seems much less of a multiracial city compared to both UK cities and to Brussels and Liège (with which I’m more familiar). The camerawork does attempt hand-held sequences and also both long shots and big close-ups. The latter often signal the flashbacks for Hannah’s trauma.

I will definitely complete at least Series 1 and if you are a crime fiction fan I would certainly recommend the series. If you stick with it past the first two or three episodes I think you will enjoy it as much as me. Don’t be put off by the sleazy connotations of ‘sex crimes’, the range of stories and the ‘human interest’ angles are all there.