"Welcome Home"

in 35th Montreal World Film Festival

by Claudia Lenssen

Welcome Home, the directorial debut of Belgian director and screenwriter Tom Heene, interweaves the intimate love-hate drama of a young couple’s fight for separation with an elegy for the filmmaker’s beloved home city Bruxelles. Wounded by the brutalism of modern architecture as well as the cynical way of life of its selfish caste of executives and business people, the European capital reveals itself to be a modern Babel, a place that confronts its inhabitants with deep alienation.

Tom Heene, born in 1969, has worked as an audiovisual creative and adviser for new media art exhibitions and performances, but his debut feature confirms cinema as his first love. Welcome Home, presented in the First Feature competition of the 36th Montreal World Film Festival, as well as in the critic’s week in Venice 2012, is founded in a trilogy of short films Heene shot during summer of 2009. After three years of work he finally completed Welcome Home with the help of friends as a very personal, low-budget production.

Though disassociatively narrated, partly in flashback, the film depicts three coherent, increasingly dramatic moments in the life of Lila, its female protagonist. Bruxelles by night is rendered as an absurd killing field where the search for one’s own identity turns out to be destructive. Lila ends up a victim to a street accident — incidentally, one of several to be seen in this year’s crop of films at the Montreal festival. Riding a bicycle is going to become a stereotype for the vulnerability of individuals in modern mega-cities.

Lila (Manah Depauw), an unglamorous woman of about 30, arrives at the airport, returning home from a backpacking trip. On the bus she gets in touch with an Iranian traveler, Bilal (Nader Farman), who reminisces about his days in Bruxellesas as a student 40 years ago. Lila feels somewhat attracted to the melancholic attitude of the foreigner, so she joins him on a walk through Bruxelles in search for the house he once shared with his friends. But Bruxelles has become monstrous. Glassy, but opaque buildings represent the moloch of an administration, bank and lobby-district. The neighbourhood Bilal once lived in has been torn down. He finds only a void, a parking lot where his old friends’ house once stood.

When Lila arrives home that night, her boyfriend Benjamin (Kurt Vandendriessche) is hostile and jealous. She did not send messages about where, when and with whom she spent the weeks away. He feels offended by her time away, by her “thinking about herself,” and assumes she probably had affairs with other men. Sex without love is something he finds unacceptable. Lila turns his arguments against him. Fed up with his possessiveness, she provokes an aggressive body-check in order to prove that Benjamin still is physically attracted to her. So what is sex without love? She literally rapes him and flees the place.

Piecing together the puzzle of Lila’s remaining hours, one comes to the conclusion that the film proposes a doubtful attitude towards its protagonist. The young woman suffers a fate that follows the old tune of women to be punished for acting like men. Riding through the night on her bicycle she gets attacked by a limousine driver heading to a party. The two young couples in the car — smoking grass, taking pills and drinking champagne — represent the multilingual, arrogant, European jeunesse d’orée. Feeling like kings of the street, they can hardly bear to find a single scratch in their car’s polished exterior. Only one guy among the group takes care and refuses to manipulate the evidence in order to shift the blame to the victim (another plot pattern which occurred in several of the festival’s films).

Nothing new under the moon in Bruxelles. The heroine must be sacrificed, the mourning can be danced away.