Flemish Heaven: Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf
by David González
- SAN SEBASTIÁN 2016: From the hand of Belgian director Peter Monsaert comes this insalubrious incursion into the potentially harrowing consequences of brothel life
There are few stranger settings for family life than a brothel. In this place of neon lights (both indoors and out), velvet-clad rooms (firmly locked whenever occupied) and prostitutes striving to maintain some sense of normality in their workplace despite infrequent but invariably appalling incidents of sexual violence, Belgian director Peter Monsaert places the family at the heart of Flemish Heaven [+see also:
film profile]. Screening in the New Directors Section at the 64th San Sebastián International Film Festival after being well received at the 41st Toronto International Film Festival, the film is the story of a little girl who, although forbidden to set foot in the establishment (the eponymous Ciel Flamand), cannot escape its shadow — given that both her mother and her grandmother work inside.
Eline (played by child actress Esra Vandenbussche) watches every day as her mother Sylvie (Sara Vertongen, Vendenbussche’s mother in real life) emerges from a house by a minor road in the middle of the Belgian countryside, right on the country’s linguistic fault line. Together, they eat their lunchtime sandwiches in the car belonging to Eline’s grandmother, in which the two women travel to work each morning. Eline wants to know why she is not allowed inside the house and what kind of work her mother does. Sylvie answers her, “I help people when they want a cuddle.” Eline is occasionally entrusted to the care of a bus conductor, “Uncle” Dirk (Wim Willaert), a somewhat mysterious but patently big-hearted soul, who takes her for walks and brings her presents. The apparent even keel of their lives continues until one particular day, Eline’s birthday. Waiting for her mother in the car outside the brothel, getting ready to blow out the candles on her birthday cake, she decides to venture across the threshold to see what is really inside. The women, unaware of Eline’s presence, seem relaxed and easy-going — but suddenly there is a danger in their midst, in the form of an odious male visitor.
Peter Monsaert lets us experience this moment, critical to the film, in an extraordinary way: from the point of view of the child, who doesn’t understand what is happening and can’t get a proper look at this man, only the small details that catch her attention and evoke sympathy with this most repugnant of monsters. Eline, traumatised, is in no state to give clear answers about what has happened, and so both Sylvie and Dirk try to find out, and to hunt down the wolf who has brought this darkness into their lives. The film is drab in both its visuals (punctuated by striking but incidental shots of the Belgian landscape beneath a permanently murky sky) and its screenplay (raising interesting themes but failing to handle them as well as it could, with somewhat lacklustre results). There are some good ideas to be found here, folded into an uneven reflection on the (a)morality of taking justice into our own hands. Where it is strongest is the lack of clear-cut answers; the idea that there are no easy solutions in a situation as abhorrent as that encountered by Little Red Riding Hood when she steps inside Flemish Heaven.
(Translated from Spanish)