directed by Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah
Wir Monster, a.k.a. Cold Days
directed by Sebastian Ko
directed by Guillaume Senez
by Bill Chambers My random sampling of #TIFF15's Discovery programme yielded a loose trilogy of bildungsromane. The most 'problematic' of these, as the kids say, is Black, a West Side Story redux set on the surprisingly mean streets of Brussels, where rival gangs of Moroccan and (I think) Congolese immigrants antagonize the locals and each other. Marwan (charming Aboubakr Bensaihi) and Mavela (gorgeous Martha Canga Antonio) meet-cute in police custody. He's Moroccan, she hangs with "the Black Bronx," whose name very purposely evokes American ghettos for that soupçon of danger. When he hits on her, she asks him how he'd feel if his sister brought a black man home; Marwan admits there's a double standard, then reassuringly points out they're both African. Within days they're a couple on the DL, whispering dreams of an honest future together. Alas, Mavela becomes inextricably tethered to the Black Bronx when she baits a female member of Marwan's posse to their clubhouse to be gangraped, then endures the same torment herself after they find out about her affair with Marwan. Note that the first rape happens offscreen while Mavela's does not, and though I don't condone any rape scene, there is something ultra-nauseating about graphically violating the Maria/Juliet figure, like when Edith Bunker endured a rape attempt: It breaks some socio-artistic contract we have with our most wholesome archetypes. It didn't make me hate her attackers so much as it made me hate the filmmakers.
Interestingly, co-directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are themselves Moroccan, and at the risk of extrapolating too much, they seem pretty fucking racist. The Moroccans here are petty criminals who steal shoes and credit cards and throw Molotov cocktails. But they are mostly harmless--puckish mischief-makers who never get very far because they're not hardcore. (The worst of them is a white guy in Moroccan drag, to the embarrassment of Marwan.) The Black Bronx, meanwhile, are a bunch of textbook mandingos who push drugs and shoot people for good measure; they're feral, and their influence turns Mavela rabid. Make no mistake: Despite the inevitability of its Shakespearean trajectory, Black is tense, riveting stuff with a viscerally-charged climax of parallel action. But that also describes Birth of a Nation, dunnit.
Much more intimately scaled, Germany's We Monsters (Wir Monster) tells the story of a divorced couple and their sociopathic/teenaged daughter. Musician Paul (Mehdi Nebbou) is driving Sarah (Janina Fautz) to summer camp when she talks him into picking up her little Lolita of a friend, Charlie (Marie Bendig), along the way. Sarah and Charlie bicker in the backseat, and when Paul pulls over to let them pee, Sarah pushes Charlie over the edge of a dam. Fearing Sarah will be tried as an adult by an unmerciful court, Paul eventually takes her home to her mother's, where he and ex-wife Christine (Ulrike C. Tscharre) deliberate on what to do about Charlie's backpack (shades of Insomnia--both versions), Charlie's distraught father (Ronald Kukulies), and their eerily placid daughter. Best when it flirts with being an evil remake of The Parent Trap, We Monsters is a black comedy about highly gullible parents that's struggling to wriggle free from the confines of a bleak yarn in the vein of Barbet Schroeder's Before and After, about parents abandoning scruples to help their only child. (Maybe that's what's up with all the cocoon-hatching imagery.) It's possible the film is more tonally cohesive--and funnier--in its native tongue, but it ends just as it finally appears to have settled on the right genre.
We return to Belgium for the last but certainly not least of these movies, Keeper. Mélanie (Galatea Bellugi) is 15 and pregnant--at least, she has a hunch that she is. When she finally knows for sure, boyfriend Maxime (Kacey Mottet Klein) lashes out, accusing her of sleeping around in a grim scene that really shows how boys want their madonnas to be whores then hold it against them once they get their wish. The news rattles him enough that he gets the yips on the soccer field at a time when he can't afford to play badly. (It's scouting season.) But there is a nurturing side to Maxime, as we witness when he puts his little brother to bed, and perhaps he takes being facetiously called "son-in-law" and "man of the house" by Mel's mother as a personal challenge, because he quickly 'mans up' in a way that's not actually expected of him. Keeper is an odd duck of a film in that it's a teen pregnancy story more focused on the boy--a boy with unnatural zeal for his impending fatherhood. His problem, reflected in but not necessarily endorsed by the picture's tapering attention to Mel, is that his paternal streak does not extend towards much compassion for the ambivalent mother-to-be. He's not a bad kid, though, just a kid; one of the more poignant, albeit contrived, images juxtaposes Max and the bars of a crib, infantilizing him but also imprisoning him, suggesting the ultimate powerlessness of his youth. Shot handheld in a style reminiscent of co-writer-director Guillaume Senez's countrymen the Dardennes (although here the characters generally feel leashed to the camera rather than the other way around), Keeper is coolly unsentimental but deeply affecting, particularly in the closing scene, where Max's maturity becomes real and profound.