The long-standing theoretical association made between watching cinema and being in a dream-like state is one that’s rooted in a firm misunderstanding about the autonomy of the viewing public, seeming to suggest that an audience member is a sort of malleable object — one by which any form of visual or verbal logic will automatically be taken at face value and synthesized with little resistance. What can give this argument some amount of credence is an acknowledgment that mainstream cinema serves to pacify viewers, which is something a dream is able to accomplish for the moments in which they are perceived as reality. This somniferous state of being is itself an affect, and one that carries a flat tone in most international arthouse cinema, working in tandem with obnoxious master shots and insistent moralizing.
What’s left when these more auteurist-driven instincts are toned down is something close to Bas Devos’ latest feature, Ghost Tropic. There’s a strange, hypnagogic beauty to the way the film operates both on an overarching structural level and on a scene-by-scene basis; it’s rare to find narrative cinema with editing rhythms this gentle, this unconcerned with creating extraneous drama or tension. Custodial worker Khadija (Saadia Bentaïeb), after sleeping through her stop on the local metro, meanders through Brussels as she attempts to return home; that’s about it in terms of dramatic stakes, and even the emotional ones are relatively muted as far as what’s accomplishable within the framework of the narrative. She tries to get on a bus at one point, but the bus breaks down. She tries to call a cab, but she doesn’t have enough money. She gets a ride from a gas station attendant, but exits the car early for personal reasons. It’s all a bit one-note, but Devos is at least attuned enough to the material on a sociopolitical level to where he never makes these moments feel cheap, nor does he at any point make Khadija a source for easy pity. Like most nocturnal reveries, Ghost Tropic doesn’t level much of an immediate impact but instead floats comfortably between the cracks of one’s consciousness, its brevity reflecting the very evanescence of dreaming.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | September 2020.