When Eline (Esra Vandenbussche) grows up, she wants to be just like her mother. After all, helping people who need hugs can sound like a pretty good job when you just turned six. What Sylvie (Sara Vertongen) isn’t telling her daughter is that she runs a brothel and is doing all she can to shield her from anything that would put her innocence in jeopardy.
This is all I knew going into Belgian writer-director Peter Monsaert’s Le Ciel Flamand, which premieres as part of TIFF’s Discovery program on Sunday. I fell in love with this premise without having seen a single frame. It sounded like Born into Brothels meets Life is Beautiful. I couldn’t have been more unprepared for the film that I was actually about to watch.
Sylvie can’t protect her daughter from the truth forever. When Elise’s curiosity gets the better of her and she ventures inside her mother’s establishment, something unspeakable happens. Elise is left physically and emotionally scarred, Sylvie is consumed by guilt, and the audience is likely to be shaken up as well.
Le Ciel Flamand tells the story of the choices that Sylvie and Elise’s Uncle Dirk (Wim Willaert) face when their sweet and trusting little girl suddenly becomes fearful and distant. What are they willing to do to make her feel safe again? This isn’t a film about prostitution. Sylvie’s profession isn’t the only- or even the most important- secret that she’s keeping from Eline. Monsaert seems to be examining the cost of hiding the truth from ourselves and those we love, and the great lengths we are willing to go to protect ourselves from it.
As interesting the questions Monsaert raises are, his characters take priority over his plot and themes. Each character is played and written with compassion as three-dimensional human beings. No simplistic Hollywood stereotypes here. Characters are brought to life by a strong cast with real-life mother and daughter Sara Vertongen and Esra Vandenbussche as clear stand-outs.
This is what TIFF’s discovery program is all about. With Le Ciel Flamand, I’ve been introduced to an exciting new filmmaker and a bold and thought-provoking film.
Sunday, September 11, 5:30 PM, Scotiabank Theatre
Tuesday, September 13, 9 AM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Tickets can be purchased online at tiff.net