We all have directors that we don’t seem to get on with. We might admire their technical prowess or their commitment, but for some reason we just don’t click. For this critic, that’s the Dardenne brothers – Jean-Pierre and Luc – the Belgian filmmaking team that have brought a series of what are widely considered modern classics such as The Promise, The Son, Rosetta and The Child; the last two of which bagged the Palme d’Or.
Their new offering Tori and Lokita, which is showing in competition at Cannes, has done nothing to convert this reviewer to their cause. Set in Dardenne-ville somewhere between Liège and despair, the film begins with young teenager Lokita (Joely Mbundu) facing an interrogation from social services. The problem is that she is pretending that 10-year-old Tori (Pablo Schils) is her brother, despite the fact they are in fact from different countries and actually met on the boat.
Their connection is one of the purest – perhaps the only truly good thing – in the whole film. There is no definition to this; no rationale – it is just a miraculous gem of bright goodness in the obsidian Belgian night. Obviously, they’re not going to be believed and there is a real danger that they will be separated by the dastardly and literally faceless social services.
To earn money the pair sing karaoke songs in a restaurant where they also serve the chef Betim (Alban Ukaj) as drug runners, delivering to nightclubs. This doesn’t make much sense as they stick out like sore thumbs running about at night and are prone to being picked up by the racist police for no reason. But nothing makes any sense in the Dardennes universe except relentless bad luck. This is what is infuriating about social realism: it’s so rarely realistic. It’s just melodrama wearing jeans.
Consider Betim, a charmless, humourless bastard who glibly exploits Lokita for sex along with everything else. He’s apparently running a highly profitable drug business but also joylessly works in his own kitchen. There’s no dimension or depth to him. No humanity. Drug dealers are frequently very funny. Or at least have some complexity to them. They are after all human beings. Or consider the church organisers who are actual people smugglers who threaten to beat up Lokita if she doesn’t pay them back their money. Just awful people without a scintilla of humanity. They’d make good baddies in a Death Wish movie.
Lokita and Tori on the other hand are obviously good. But their goodness is that of the passive victims whose sole purpose seems to be to have shit happen to them. Lokita gets work in a cannabis farm where she is virtually imprisoned and the rest of the film is made up of Tori’s attempts to contact her and finally affect their escape. This includes a chase scene, having bonked Betim on the head twice with a plank of wood. The final twist is so manipulative and cynical as to be actually enraging. One of the worst things to happen to these children is to find themselves in the hands of two old white men who want to exploit them for their own purposes: yet another injustice that needs to be addressed.
The 75th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 17-28 May. Follow our coverage here.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty