Fien Troch’s triumph as a tyro European filmmaker couldn’t be more complete than it is with “Someone Else’s Happiness,” a superbly staged rendering of the shock felt by a Belgian suburb after a boy is killed in a hit-and-run incident. Made with the precision of a Michael Haneke and the social scope of a Jean Renoir, this powerfully resonant expression of life in post-industrialized civilization would serve as an ideal time capsule item for future generations. Richly deserving as Belgium’s Oscar submission, pic has enjoyed a terrific fest run and good Euro playdates, and demands pickup from a brave Yank distrib.
Troch declares her intentions with the subtle and disturbing opening shot: A tranquil view of the woods near the predominantly Dutch-speaking burg of Noville is ruptured by the sound of a thump and a moving car, followed by a quick glimpse of a boy crawling on the pavement and into what sounds like water.
Next series of shots would seem to implicate businessman Francis (Johan Leysen), whose wife An (Johanna ter Steege) notices a severe dent on his car’s bumper. Suspicions seem further confirmed by Francis himself, who looks more and more like a morally haunted man who knows he’s done something terribly wrong, yet can’t speak about it.
Later that night, neighbor Christine (Ina Geerts, in a smashing perf) stops her car by the side of the road, where she spots what seems to be a child in a ditch. But by the time cop Mark (Peter Van den Begin) arrives on the scene, the body has vanished.
This doesn’t help Christine’s emotional state, as her depressive husband Fred (Robby Cleiren), from whom she’s separated, has been phoning her and threatening suicide.
Troch’s script gradually reveals a web of interconnected characters, and the overall effect indicates what P.T. Anderson’s ensemble films would be like if set at a far less hysterical tone. Mark turns out to be the father of the hit-and-run victim — Bart, his twin son along with Tom (both played by Cesar De Sutter) — while Gerda (Natali Broods), Mark’s wife, works as a housekeeper for Christine.
Once Christine finds out who the boy was, she feels pressured to tell Gerda what she saw, but can’t quite get the words out of her mouth.
The film becomes a marvel of editing, rhythm and economy as it fluidly tracks the private lives and behavior of the Noville residents, many of whom seem to live for the next TV program, or are flustered as to what to do next in their ultra-clean, perfectly designed suburban dwellings. It doesn’t fail to capture, as well, the blue-collar locals, darkly characterized by ex-pugilist Johnny the Flow (vet thesp Jan Decleir), who’s convinced he’s found the killer — mentally disturbed loner Njord (Franck Chartier).
Though it would appear to be playing whodunit games, this magnificently accomplished social drama can’t be reduced to mere genre schemes. Besides, with the penultimate shot, a whole different scenario of the possible killer is hinted at — just as it suggests that finding the real killer is beside the point.
At almost every phase, Troch dispenses with the standard stereotypes of suburbanites as morally and emotionally bankrupt, and plumbs the human dimensions of her story with a meticulously chosen cast. Geerts stands out as a woman trying to find new sense in her life but unsure how to deal with such vague yet all-encompassing tragedy.
Leysen and ter Steege flesh out spouses living in entirely separate worlds under the same roof, while Van den Begin and Cleiren make their brief scenes memorably explosive. Viviane De Muynck’s slightly exaggerated portrayal of Christine’s bossy mom reps pic’s rare touch of satire. At least a baker’s dozen of choice supporting perfs is very much in the Renoir tradition of humanizing a wide range of characters with precision and (often) wit.
Filmmaking of the highest order distinguishes Troch’s debut. Frank Van Den Eeden’s brilliant widescreen lensing, Nico Leunen’s crucially precise editing and Gert Stas’ production design encompass a world split among homes of comfort and cool emptiness, stores designed less for human beings than for the products being sold, and a nearby forest fraught with hazard.
Peter Van Laerhoven’s guitar-dominant underscore lays down a disturbing mood, while Troch herself records a fine version of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”