New Flemish film tests boundaries

Summary

Director Caroline Strubbe’s new movie tells the story of an unusual couple in an ambiguous relationship

“It’s about the roles we play as men and women”

There are many ways that a film can grab your attention. Early in I’m the Same, I’m an Other, by Flemish director Caroline Strubbe, a man places a small girl into the boot of a car. She doesn’t struggle, just looks steadily back through one eye, smudged with make-up. Then he closes the boot, gently but firmly.

It’s a confusing situation, somewhere between an escape and a kidnapping. Even Strubbe admits to a frisson at this moment. “I still have this claustrophobic feeling when she goes into the trunk. I also feel this ambiguity, this possibility that this man is going to do something with her, even though I know how it ends.”

If you saw Strubbe’s 2009 debut, Lost Persons Area, you will know the situation that Tessa and Szabolcs are fleeing, but the back-story is not essential. What’s important is that the situation was bad enough to send them into hiding. They take a ferry from Flanders to England, driving until they end up in a down-at-heel seaside town. Then, in the confines of a rented apartment, they test the boundaries of their relationship.

There are people who will argue that the relationship between an 11-year-old girl and an adult man is not an appropriate place for ambiguity, uncertainty and exploration, but Strubbe (pictured above left, with Kimke Desart and Zoltán Miklós Hajdu) sees it as a situation of primal significance. “As young girls, we have this fantasy. We don’t want it to happen in reality, but in our thoughts, from 11 to 14, we have this desire to sleep with an older man, who is a father figure.”

Impossible job

Their situation also provides a space to consider adult relationships and the pressure of being in a couple. “She wants to play all the roles for him: doing the dishes, cleaning up, being beautiful, making nice things, being funny, being seductive. That’s a lot! It’s impossible. So from another point of view, it’s not only about a little girl, it’s also about the roles we play as men and women and how men deal with this.”

Even though she is little, she finds a way to change him

- Caroline Strubbe

While Szabolcs appears to have all the power in this situation, he often seems as much a prisoner as Tessa. He is tortured by the ambiguity of his feelings, and it is Tessa who holds the key. “Even though she is little, she finds a way to change him,” Strubbe says. “Unconsciously, out of a need to survive, but it happens.”

This explains the film’s title, taken from a poem by Gianluca Manzi that was made famous by the celebrated jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. “Through meeting someone, you change, even if you are still the same,” Strubbe explains.

The origins of the film lie in the director’s own childhood memories. “It’s like a puzzle. When I write the script I describe images that unconsciously I’ve kept, and in making the film I start to understand why these feelings have stayed with me for so long.”

Her approach to film making is very open, responding to the locations and the way the actors choose to explore their characters. With Kimke Desart, the Flemish actress who plays Tessa, this involved watching while she experimented around the set or interacted with Zoltán Miklós Hajdu, the actor playing Szabolcs. “Her contribution is herself. She understands immediately what it is about. We don’t discuss it.”

Obsession

More planning went into Tessa’s obsessive collecting and creation of strange totemic objects. In Lost Persons Area most of these objects were scavenged from the environment, but here they come from the more circumscribed space of the apartment, and even her own body. “If you have nothing, you start to collect,” explains Strubbe. “Then you have something concrete, you really have it.”

Her contribution is herself. She understands immediately what it is about

- Caroline Strubbe

The idea that Tessa should do this was part of Strubbe’s original plan for the films, but their actual appearance is inspired by the work of Finnish artist Anu Tuominen. “By chance I went to a gallery and all the objects that I described in my script were there,” she recalls.

Tuominen agreed to share some of her pieces, which were used as models for the objects that Tessa creates in the two films. But when the artist belatedly read the script, she found a deeper connection with the character. “What I described was how she started to make art, in isolation and out of a certain kind of loneliness,” Strubbe says.

Lost Persons Area and I’m the Same, I’m an Other were conceived as the first two parts of a trilogy, and now Strubbe will begin to write part three. The broad idea is that it will explore a meeting between Tessa and Szabolcs several years after the denouement of the present film, but exactly what that will involve remains to be seen. “In making these two films, I’ve changed,” she says, “so maybe the characters will change as well.”

Up to now, both Strubbe and her characters have been driven by a faith in naivety. “Even if you have suffered and life is cruel, naivety will help,” she explains. “Maybe that’s because you can make things in your imagination that help you overcome a lot of circumstances.”

For this to be possible, however, the characters must retreat from the world. In the third and final part of the story, which will unfold in Budapest, there is no avoiding reality. “I think these characters can only survive when they are outside of society,” Strubbe says. “If I put them into society, how cruel will they become?”

photo: AFP/Getty

Review: I’m the Same, I’m an Other

A guy and a girl on the run. They drive. They hide out in an obscure foreign town. Thrown together, their relationship changes. This could be a conventional road movie or a film noir, but for the fact that Szabolcs is in his 30s and Tessa only 11. 

In making these two films, I’ve changed, so maybe the characters will change as well

- Caroline Strubbe

This age difference constantly puts the viewer off-balance, yet there is sufficient ambiguity in the situation that you don’t reject it out of hand. It is intriguing. You never really know what Tessa and Szabolcs (Kimke Desart and Zoltán Miklós Hajdu) mean to one another for the simple reason that they do not know either.

The drama of the film comes from watching them test the limits of this relationship, with no pattern to follow and a lingering fear that they are on the edge of something dark and dangerous. This virtually wordless process plays out in the way they live together in the confines of a small apartment and in Tessa’s obsessive collecting and ordering of things.

This central section of the film is remarkably atmospheric, contrasting the closely observed world of the apartment with the windswept emptiness of the town outside. It seems to be a place outside time, yet it also feels like a mirror image of the Flanders they have left behind, just a blink away from reality.

It would be easy to characterise I’m the Same, I’m an Other as a film in which nothing happens for much of the time, yet even at its most existential it makes compelling viewing. And in contrast to its predecessor, the frustratingly open-ended Lost Persons Area, this follow-up has a conclusion dramatic enough for any of the genres suggested by its beginning.

New Flemish film tests boundaries

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Flemish cinema

Thanks to a federal tax shelter system, support from the Flemish Audiovisueel Fund and the rise of a new generation of talented filmmakers, Flemish cinema has been riding the crest of a wave since the mid-2000s with distinctly locally flavoured features that have appealed to both crowds and critics.
Loft - With more than one million viewers, Erik Van Looy’s Loft was the most successful movie ever made in Flanders.
Bullhead - In 2012, Michaël R Roskam’s directorial debut Rundskop (Bullhead) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.
Names - Well-known current Flemish directors include Erik Van Looy, Jan Verheyen, Michaël R Roskam, Fien Troch and Felix Van Groeningen.
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in 5 movie tickets sold in Flanders is to see a Flemish movie

226

international festival nominations or prizes in 2012

1 462 160

people went to see a Flemish (co)production in Belgium in 2012