Teenage-girl Enigma

in 57th Valladolid International Film Festival

by Joan Millaret

Little Black Spiders is based on recently-discovered real facts that happened in Belgium between the 60s and the 80s. Horrible facts: child-trafficking, in which some denominational organisations were involved when babies were kept away from very young mums and sold to adoptive families in a country where abortion was not allowed. Such happenings have been covered up and granted since then, and there have also been similar and accepted occurrences recently discovered in other countries like Spain.

Controversy and scandal can always be found in Belgian director Patrice Toye’s work, but nevertheless in an indirect way, steering clear of documentary and explicit protest by approaching richer formal experimental fiction. The story is set in the late 70s where Katja, a 17-year-old pregnant orphan, arrives at an institutional home where the attic is destined for keeping pregnant teenagers secretly hidden away from the world.

Toye approaches this sad story by vividly transmitting the girls’ fears and wishes from the inside of a closed and remote institution. Pregnant teenagers have been rejected by their families or abandoned by their lovers and can’t go nowhere else but to these apparently safe homes created especially for them. Instead of being future unmarried mothers with no future and no means of support, these places can become a shelter for them… but not knowing at all that they are going to be used as surrogate mothers as well.

Terrifying facts in Little Black Spiders are used by the director in an ambiguous slippery shade, which reinforces both the uncertain girls’ captivity and the home staff’s intentions. By shooting and composing she spreads the huis clos anxiety: empty corridors and rooms transmit a latent threat, the building is a classic haunted house from thrillers, the headmistress always wears black and provokes mistrust and fear. All these elements are the ingredients which tilt the story into a suggestive menacing atmosphere.

The weird and worrying atmosphere in the film fully participates then in drawing a thin red line between legal and illegal, since it blurs the limits of captivity in the building by the apparent girls’ free circulation inside of it. Uncertain feelings provoke us into seeing the set as a prison but sometimes it seems like a holiday activity centre instead: the confined atmosphere startles with the apparent lack of jailers.

Little Black Spiders is a choral performance by a group of girls who have to cope with motherhood at a very early age. They are in a crucial and delicate moment of vulnerability and nervous tension between a carefree youth and the unknown as a mother, a difficult unstable step beyond… Adulthood comes after the turbulent transition from teenage to mature, from girl to woman. The protagonists are in the middle of a trial, struggling between choosing womanhood or a simple and free teenage period. A lot of questions are simply and brilliantly answered thanks to Patrice Toye’s carefully filmed technique, from uncontrolled impulsions full of violence and rage to the emergence of joy and happier moments. 

An exultant feminine world emerges from interiors. It also physically blows in the middle of the surrounding gardens, woods and streams: peaceful bodies in suspension, pleasant moments of environment fusion. Sometimes the girls even seem beautiful tale figures, like nymphs. There is even a dream sequence, actually a nightmare one, which undeniably refers to Luís Buñuel’s cinema; something like the manifestation of a repressed sexual momentum by the profusion of insects moving all around the most intimate parts of a woman’s body.

Sometimes these girls transform into sensual free bodies convulsing to rock music beats. Other moments are devoted to baffling juvenile games, as the mythological Minotaur and the Cretan Labyrinth scene played by the girls, an allegorical glimpse saturated with paganism (or primitivism) which seems to highlight some enigma-full intangible sacred feminine condition. That is to say, it is a feminine universe that corresponds to films which are full of rarefied, melancholic atmospheres up to feminine partnership: altogether outdoor-based ones, like Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999), and indoor-based such as 2011 Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures (L’Apollonide, souvenirs de la maison close, 2011).

The elegant and sensitive portrait of a feminine group in Little Black Spiders, thanks to Patrice Toye’s stylised filming, still doesn’t avoid the dramatic, the tragic force emerging from these girls isolated from the rest of the world. This feature film ends up by also claiming the victory of freedom, the brave and determined aim emerging from the main character, Katja, who overcomes obstacles and setbacks in order to face a difficult future… but a future at least. 

Edited by Steven Yates