What if? What if a chance event interrupted the sameness, the repetition, of one’s daily round of life? That’s the central question posed by “Ghost Tropic,” a thoughtful, enigmatic, carefully constructed film, set in Brussels, from award-winning Belgian director and writer Bas Devos.
Late one night, on the commute home, Khadija falls asleep on the Metro and finds herself at the end of the line, on the last train, and without money.
The chance event happens to Khadija (veteran actress Saadia Bentaïeb), a 58-year-old, diminutive Maghrebi woman, her hair covered by a head scarf, who has cleaned office buildings on the night shift for 20 years. She doesn’t resent the job, and she shares moments of humor and laughter with her co-workers. Late one night, on the commute home, she falls asleep on the Metro and finds herself at the end of the line, on the last train, and without money. The night bus is “out of service” (sounds like Rome), and Khadija begins to walk home—miles away, one imagines.
Khadija (Saadia Bentaïeb),
whose inner thoughts we can't
know, is a careful observer
of the night world in Brussels.
A woman walking alone, at night, through a soul-less metropolis of glass and concrete—there’s no “cute” Brussels here, and the city is closing down around her. It’s the perfect set-up for neo-noir, with its shadows and tensions and a threat around every corner. Instead, Devos defies our expectations, offering another sort of journey, on which quiet, observant, self-sufficient and determined Khadija discovers and embraces the humanity of ordinary people: a night-watchman who allows her access to an ATM after closing hours; a concerned but ultimately trusting man who questions her presence at a house she once cleaned; a mini-mart clerk who offers a ride home; two policemen who, at her request, investigate alcohol sales to a minor.
In other hands, encounters such as these—as well as Khadija’s effort to save the lives of a homeless man and his dog—could be cloying, and that’s a reasonable reading of the film’s message. Devos skirts the mawkish in part by focusing on Khadija’s character, her presence, her inner being, though we never know her thoughts and she seldom speaks at length. The film purposefully lacks expressions of “gratitude”—Khadija’s gratitude for the help she’s given, others’ gratitude for her caring and good works—that would raise the unctuous quotient.
Kahdija’s trek through the city is book-ended by 4-minute shots, one at the beginning of the film (as the sun goes down) and one at the end (as the sun comes up), of the middle-class living room of her apartment, unfolded laundry representing a quotidian existence. In contrast to the walk-home core of the film, in neither of these 4-minute sections does the camera move nor does she or anyone enter the room. Over the opening scene, a voice says, “We fill this space with our lives. It’s a relentless task. It’s the hardest work I know.” Here the living room, along with other early scenes filmed with a static camera, functions as a metaphor for what’s necessary but also confining, the stasis that a stable life, and even a certain kind of happiness, demands, but which can prevent exploring other ways of being in the world.
The film’s title works as a second metaphor, one akin to a utopian, tropic dream. We first encounter the “dream” at the Metro station, where Kahdija observes an on-screen advertisement for a tropical setting, with the words “Get Lost,” the first hint that what she needs, and what the night will bring, is to “get lost,” to wend her way through an unfamiliar cityscape while shedding the routines that have bound her life. Later, she dreams of herself as a young woman (or is it her daughter, or both?) on that sandy tropical beach, reluctant to join friends splashing in the ocean. While on her night journey, she learns that 3 of 4 caged mall parrots—denizens of the tropics—have died, victims of confinement.
It's a visually innovative film, in which the camera’s movement (or lack of it) tells its own, parallel story.
We’ve seen enough woman-in-distress films to be grateful for one that doesn’t use that trope, even if Kahdija’s after-dark experience (and Kahdija for that matter) at times seems too positive to be realistic. Despite the incidents that mark Kahdija’s progress through Brussels, the story is slow to develop, sometimes ponderous, and likely to appeal only to veterans of the art house. It’s also—and importantly—a visually innovative film, in which the camera’s movement (or lack of it) tells its own, parallel story, all of it filmed at a square-appearing aspect ratio (1.33:1) that references those caged parrots and begs the question: What if? What if Kahdija lived her life in CinemaScope?
Date: 2019 (2020 U.S.)
Director: Bas Devos
Starring: Saadia Bentaïeb
Country: Belgium, Netherlands
Languages: Dutch, French, subtitled in English
Runtime: 85 minutes
Other Awards: 3 wins and 11 nominations, screened in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section in 2019.