This was a short, small, and deceptively meek little film – but with one scene that came as a bit of a slap that sent me off balance.
Govert Miereveld (Senne Rouffaer) is a teacher at a secondary school somewhere in Belgium. He’s married with two kids; and he also has a romantic obsession with one of his pupils, a beauty named Fran Veerman (Beata Tyszkiewicz). When we meet him, it’s the morning of the school’s graduation ceremony, and Govert has made up his mind that once the ceremony’s over, he’s finally going to take her aside and proclaim his love. He even stops by the barber’s on the way to the ceremony to get a haircut and spruce himself up some. But the general fuss of the ceremony gets in the way, and then there’s a pageant that the graduating students are presenting for the parents and he can’t interrupt that, and it wouldn’t be proper for him to break into her dressing room, and….and so he never actually gets the chance.
Govert falls into such a state of depression about Fran that he quits teaching altogether, taking a job as a court clerk in another town, toiling away for some years in what he sees as a boring and dead-end job as a sort of penance. Then one of his friends, the court medical officer, invites him along on an investigation; he’s been asked to do an autopsy on a body pulled from a river to try to identify the corpse. It’s a grim task, but it’s some distance into the country and the drive there might be a nice “road trip”. They spend longer than planned on the autopsy and are forced to stay overnight.
But right after they’ve gotten their room keys, Govert starts to head up to his room….and sees Fran, now a famous singer, coming down the stairs. Govert is overjoyed to see her again, and delighted that she remembers him….and even more delighted to hear that she wants to catch up a bit later that evening, after a concert she’s giving, and she’s staying in the room around the corner from him. Govert counts down the minutes until he can rush to Fran’s room and pour his heart out, telling Fran everything he feels about her. Fran takes it all in – but then it’s her turn to talk.
Honestly, the scene in Fran’s hotel room made the entire film for me. Everything that came before it felt slow and plodding, and seemed to drag on too long – Govert pacing backstage during the school pageant trying to work up the courage to talk to Fran, the stilted conversation as he and his friend drove to the autopsy, the autopsy itself. It felt like boring, inconsequential stuff from a boring, inconsequential life. The only times that Govert seems to hit any heights of passion or fervor was when he was thinking about Fran, or watching her sing, or pouring out his heart to her. She is a goddess to him, and he is her most devout and fervent acolyte.
And that’s why the scene in the hotel room is so devastating – because while Fran says she reciprocates what he feels, she also thoroughly destroys the idealized image he has of her. She is not what he believes her to be, and she never was. Director André Delvaux stages this scene with shots of Rouffaer and Tyszkiewicz each looking directly into the camera in turns as they speak to each other; Govert is making his declaration to Fran looking directly at us, and we see Fran’s reaction; and then we see Govert’s shock as Fran makes her own confession. It’s an affecting choice – Rouffaer looks so floored and wounded by the things Fran tells him that his next actions make total sense.
Even the long, dull bits that come before make sense. Some critics of this film teased Delvaux for being “The Man Who Would Not Cut His Film Short”, but I found that this just emphasized how timid and stuck in a rut Miereveld had become; which in turn explains how he got so obsessed with a young, beautiful girl to the point that it lead to disaster. Rouffaer also just looks like a dictionary illustration for the word “meek”; he’s small, shrinking, inconsequential. He’s in such a routine that Fran seems like his only chance to grab for beauty – and learns that expecting her to be his salvation is a huge mistake.