Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"It’s a film shot mostly in shadow, in the long-neglected house or in the narrow confines of locker rooms and toilet blocks at the factory." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Between January 1996 and July 1997, a serial killer stalked a city in western Belgium, murdering and dismembering at least five women. Although numerous leads were investigated, he was never caught. Karim Ouelhaj’s disturbing film, perhaps the darkest contribution to 2022’s Fantasia International Film Festival, speculates not on his identity per se but on what, after his death, might have happened to his children.

Félix (Benjamin Ramon) and Martha (Eline Schumacher) live together in a large, sprawling house which has seen better days. Félix is the dominant one of the pair, quick to raise his voice or shoot his sister an aggressive glance if she steps out of line, but there is relatively little confict between them as they each know the boundaries of their roles. She works as a cleaner, obtaining money for food and bills, taking care of practical matters, and never going into his room or ‘the other room’, He functions as a source of authority, a substitute for their deceased father, and it soon becomes clear that he is carry on his father’s work.

Exactly how much Martha knows, or when she knows it, is unclear, but there is within her an innate loyalty to her family and a disinclination to look beyond the amoral landscape in which she has been raised. Like Myra Hindley, whose father praised her only when she got into fights, or Rosemary West, who was raped by her father from an early age and continued to face that about even after he ‘sold’ her to her serial killer husband, she looks out at the world from a fundamentally broken place. When, in a distressing early scene, she is taunted and then raped by two of the men at the factory where she works, with a third looking on, it is just more of the same. She is hurt, but she doesn’t expect any better of the world.

Two things happen to interrupt Martha’s drab, unchanging existence. The first is her discovery that one of the rapes has left her pregnant, filling her with excitement at the thought that she might have some loving company in life, and bringing her into contact with social services. The other is that Félix brings home a new victim, a woman whom he seems to intend to keep for a while, whose efforts to survive prompt not so much sympathy as a reassessment of her own potential to exercise her will.

It’s a film shot mostly in shadow, in the long-neglected house or in the narrow confines of locker rooms and toilet blocks at the factory. Early scenes are stitched together roughly, so that it takes a while to figure out how everything fits. This seems deliberate, giving us the same sense of disjointed reality in which the siblings live, something which breaks down still further during the few late scenes when they find happiness together. The film offers viewers a dark pleasure in seeing Martha find justice of a sort, and Schumacher’s performance makes it possible to relate to her even as she falls further and further into Félix's orbit, but in the process it becomes clear that she does possess some empathy and, thereby, the ability to recognise the horror of what he is doing. Her complicity becomes more and more difficult to excuse.

“Do you think people want to be like me?” Martha asks towards the end, but it feels like a cover for her unwillingness to take responsibility. Is she simply a victim of circumstance or is she, too, a monster? Ouelhaj takes us to a place not only short on hope, but where hope itself must be eliminated wherever possible in order to guard against the recognition that there is something beyond fate.

Reviewed on: 23 Jul 2022
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Megalomaniac packshot
A film about the weight of patriarchy and the illusion of Manichaeism.

Director: Karim Ouelhaj

Writer: Karim Ouelhaj

Starring: Eline Schumacher, Wim Willaert, Benjamin Ramon, Pierre Nisse, Raphaëlle Lubansu, Olivier Picard

Year: 2022

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Belgium

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