Veerle Baetens’ debut feature When It Melts is one of those films that is difficult to discuss without giving the entire thing away, not only because the story slowly builds up to one defining moment, but also because that moment is so despairing, so emotionally unnerving that one feels compelled to warn any potential future audiences. It’s also a difficult film to criticize, inasmuch as the things one might identify as flaws are surely intentional on the filmmakers’ part. It’s a grueling film, by design, one that demands an audience wade through unimaginable grief and suffering to perhaps achieve some moment of grace or catharsis. Whether or not the journey is worth it is up for debate.
The film begins in Brussels; 20-something Eva (Charlotte De Bruyne) works as an assistant to a photographer and is preparing to say goodbye to her younger sister, who’s moving out of their shared apartment and back to the small town in which they both grew up. While browsing through her Facebook feed, Eva notices a post about a memorial for a long-deceased friend. The collection of old photographs accompanying the post awakens something in Eva, who begins packing her bags and constructing a large block of ice in a small fridge. She has decided to return home, although her motivations at this point remain vague and cryptic. Here Baeten introduces not simply a prolonged flashback, but an entire parallel narrative, as the film begins bouncing back and forth between the adult Eva’s journey to Bovenmeer and 13-year-old Eva’s (Rosa Marchant) misadventures with best friends Tim (Anthony Vyt) and Laurens (Matthijs Meertens). They call themselves “The Three Musketeers,” an inseparable group that is suddenly beginning to change as puberty and curiosity in the opposite sex have begun to alter the boundaries of their clique.
Baeten, working from Lize Spit’s novel The Melting, wastes no time piling on the miseries. It’s Tim’s brother who has recently died (he’s the one being memorialized in the present-day timeline), and we catch glimpses of his haunted, sallow, now-separated parents in the background of some scenes. Eva’s mother and father (still married when she is an adult) are revealed to be an alcoholic (the former) and emotionally abusive (the latter), prone to loud arguments that send Eva and her sister to cower in their bedroom. As the summer progresses, Tim and Laurens grow tired of playing truth-or-dare and devise a game meant to goad girls into disrobing — they ask a riddle, and with each incorrect guess at an answer their chosen victim removes an article of clothing. Eva plays along at first, even supplying the brain teaser that gives the film its title. Indeed, her presence lulls these other girls into a false sense of security, and since Eva has developed a crush on Tim, she will do anything to gain his approval. The plot thickens, so to speak, when a new girl moves to town, dumped there by her rich father to spend time with an aunt she barely knows. Eva is desperate for a friend, attempting to ingratiate herself with the worldly teenager, while Tim and Laurens try in vain to get her to play their game.
Baeten has a knack for slowly building dread, expertly turning the screws as tensions mount with each cut between present day and the past. Adult Eva is socially awkward and emotionally stunted, as witnessed on an attempted date that goes quickly awry. What has happened in the past to make her this way? Much like Laura Wandel’s Playground, another Belgian drama built around children doing horrible things to each other, one gradually feels resentful at the game being played, the sense that trauma is simply a device in a mystery plot. We wait for the other shoe to drop, a perverse sense of relief as the story finally clicks into place and what was once opaque becomes crystallized. Eva’s pathology will be revealed, but it’s a long path filled with indignities to get there. To be fair, there is an attempt here to both empathize with a victim while interrogating the system that lets abuse become normalized and go unpunished. And Baeten, also an actress, gets fine performances from her young cast. It’s not necessarily that When It Melts is a bad film as it is one that comes dangerously close to depicting something morally abject. It’s both horrifying and yet also ultimately shallow — call it the Haneke effect (one wonders what a genuine provocateur like Catherine Breillat might have done with this material). Eventually, the film ends exactly where and how you think it will, doing nothing to lift up or otherwise ennoble victims. It instead offers viewers a chance to gawk at aestheticized misfortune and pat themselves on the back for solving the riddle. Like Rivette recoiling from the tracking shot in Kapo, this is a film worthy of contempt.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 5.