'Ghost Tropic': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A stunning little gem.

The third feature from Flemish director Bas Devos (Berlinale Generation Grand Prix winner 'Violet') premiered in the Cannes Directors' Fortnight.

A cleaning lady falls asleep on the last subway after working late in Ghost Tropic, and this seemingly mundane mistake is the beginning of a beautifully observed, hushed nocturnal odyssey as the middle-aged woman has to travel across much of Brussels to try and get home. This is the third feature from Flemish filmmaker Bas Devos, whose exquisite debut about a boy in mourning, Violet, won the Berlinale Generation’s Grand Prix in 2014 and whose second work, the bleak Brussels-in-times-of-terrorism tale Hellhole, premiered in Berlin’s Panorama strand just a few months ago. Here, hope seems to have returned as the director casts a benign eye on a complex but nonetheless beautiful world. 

A delicate miniature that’s magnificently humanist, occasionally amusing and shot in a palette of rich, saturated nighttime hues, this is the kind of really small movie that is actually really great. It was one of the very few standouts in this year’s Directors’ Night program alongside the delirious two-hander The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. 

Khadija (Saadia Bentaieb, from BPM) is a headscarf-wearing 58-year-old of Maghrebi origins who lives in Brussels. When the film starts, we see dusk slowly descend on her empty living room in a single fixed shot. This opening, in which nothing happens besides subtle changes in the light coming in through a window, is a clear move from Devos to signal to audiences that this won’t be a narrative-heavy experience as much as a sensorial one. (There is a whispery voiceover that underlines that the senses are important.) 

Clearly, what is required is some patience and a willingness to pick up on small but telling details. Both this particular necessity on behalf of the viewer, as well as the gorgeously textured camerawork that captures Brussels as a city that can at times be impassive and touched by grace at others, bring to mind Andrea Pallaoro’s contemplative character study Hannah, which won Charlotte Rampling a Best Actress Coppa Volpi a few years ago in Venice.

What emerges from Ghost Tropic’s early going is that Khadija is a cleaning lady who mainly works after dark. When she accidentally dozes off on the last métro, she finds herself on the other end of town at night with no direct possibility to go home. Phoning her adult son doesn’t yield any direct results, so she decides to take a cab home, despite the cost. But after she has managed to convince a security guard (Stefan Gota) at a closed mall to let her in so she can withdraw money from an ATM, she discovers that her account is overdrawn. Walking home, which would take several hours in the cold wintry night, seems to be the only option left. Devos’ and Bentaieb’s characterization of the protagonist is so strong that even after just a few minutes, it is clear that Khadija isn’t a woman who likes to dawdle, so she immediately sets out into the night. 

The film’s setup couldn’t be more straightforward and yet it is surprisingly effective, as Devos, who also wrote the screenplay, gets his protagonist involved in a series of vignettes in which she meets with, accompanies or spies on different creatures of the night. Along the way, we accumulate little insights about Khadija and her life, including the fact that she’s a relatively proud woman who doesn’t like to ask for help, like when the security guard asks her if it all worked out with the ATM and she simply answers, “It worked out,” despite not having succeeded in withdrawing any money.

Ditto when she stops at a stately home and has a peek inside through a side window, where she discovers a young man who asks her to keep silent by putting his index finger in front of his mouth before turning off the light. It’s a wondrous little moment of silent communication, with everything residing in the exchanged looks and gestures. We do learn, through an unexpected conversation with a concerned neighbor a little later, that Khadija worked as a cleaner for the family that used to live there but that now, the home has (theoretically) been empty for a few years. 

The minimalist dialogue, which is very natural — even though it is mostly in French, which isn’t Devos’ mother tongue — is always very telling. As soon as the apprehensive neighbor learns Khadija is a cleaner, for example, he is both relieved and asks her if she’s available because he’s unhappy with his current Polish cleaning lady. It’s a seemingly simple question that raises all sorts of issues. First, it tries to signal that the man probably thinks he isn’t racist — he would love to have a middle-aged, Maghrebi cleaning lady! — even though he was the one who confronted a headscarved unknown about what she was doing near an abandoned house at night. Second, his question suggests that he might assume that being a cleaning lady corresponds to the place in society that is suitable for women like Khadija. He might be wanting to help her by offering her a job but, given the job that he’s offering, he is also (probably unwittingly) reinforcing prejudices about what women like her can or might want to do in the future.

In just one innocent question, Devos therefore manages to paint a quite detailed picture of the complex multicultural melting pot that Brussels has become today and where issues of race, religion, class and social mobility all play a role. But since issues such as these are encapsulated in a single question, the film never becomes a heavy, academic exposé about the problems of living in a 21st century European capital. It remains light on its feet — and can be enjoyed without pondering all these issues. 

The film’s most moving encounters happen back to back, when Khadija bonds with a gas station attendant (Maaike Neuville) who is closing up shop and then stumbles upon her own teenage daughter (Nora Dari), who is out at night and in the early stages of an infatuation with a young man. The latter encounter is especially telling, as it provides more insight into the protagonist’s own family life and also, more generally, into second-generation immigrants and how their lives differ from the lives of their parents. Like Neuville, Dari and the rest of the cast, Bentaieb delivers a beautifully restrained performance that suggests an innate kindness underneath her weary visage.  

Cinematographer Grimm Vandekerckhove has collaborated with Belgian star cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (I, Tonya), who shot Devos’ first two films, on several projects including Devos’ Violet and Roskam’s Racer and the Jailbirdand the visual continuity between the films is quite astonishing. Vandekerckhove's shimmering nighttime photography, shot on rich Kodak stock, is dense and dark, moody yet never gloomy. It is also, quite often, unexpectedly gorgeous, as if to suggest that moments of beauty can be caught by those open to seeing them. The contrast with the luminous and limpid closing images helps to underline the aforementioned gap between the generation of Khadija and that of her daughter and wordlessly suggests why people like the protagonist work as hard as they do.  

Besides the cinematography, Brecht Ameel’s soothing, melancholic guitar score helps to establish exactly the right tone for this little gem, which suggests that kindness and beauty are all around us. All it takes to see it is an effort to look for it.  

Production companies: Quetzalcoatl, 10.18 Films, Minds Meet, Phantavision
Cast: Saadia Bentaieb, Nora Dari, Maaike Neuville, Stefan Gota
Writer-director: Bas Devos
Producers: Nabil Ben Yadir, Marc Goyens, Tomas Leyers, Benoit Roland
Director of photography: Grimm Vandekerckhove
Production designers: Jonathan Van Essche, Quinten Van Essche
Costume designer: Manon Blom
Editors: Dieter Diependaele, Bas Devos
Music: Brecht Ameel 
Sales: Rediance
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)

In French, Dutch
No rating, 85 minutes