Belgian writer-director Tom Heene’s impressive debut feature, “Welcome Home,” cannily combines abstract modernism with emotional intensity to deliver a unique snapshot of people and places in flux. Originally conceived as a three-parter tracing a young woman’s fateful homecoming to her native city of Brussels, the pic has been reconfigured to form a single, nonlinear whole, interweaving charged images from different times of the heroine’s day, and intercutting shots of an urban landscape in continual transition with deeply interpersonal exchanges in several languages. “Home” should find an enthusiastic welcome in arthouses globally.
On the bus from the airport, Lila (Manah Depauw) encounters Billal (Nader Farman), a 60-year-old Iranian traveling from Saudi Arabia to Rotterdam, who has stopped off in Brussels to revisit the couple with whom he spent a memorable year as a student 40 years before. Recognizing nothing in the transformed city , he cannot find the house, and Lila offers to join him on his pilgrimage. The Brussels they navigate presents a strange amalgam of new and old, with giant billboards and huge glass buildings that house multinationals standing cheek by jowl with Gothic cathedrals and quaint two-story homes.
Lila’s provocative reunion with her boyfriend, Benji (Kurt Vandendriessche), unleashes a whirlwind of contradictory emotions — love, hate, jealousy, anger, tenderness — as the camera locks onto their faces, and the two lock into one another sexually, making love, war and everything in between in French, Dutch and English. Heene and lenser Frederic Noirhomme excel in infusing their closeups with a psychological physicality that fairly vibrates with tension.
The third narrative thread concerns Bruno (Felipe Mafasoli) at the wheel of a car full of colleagues — young, self-centered “Eurocrats” — out on the town speaking a babble of languages. Though they have spent years in Brussels, they have never really bothered to know the place, existing in a global bubble all their own. Bruno’s confrontational run-ins with Lila on her bicycle, apparently minor skirmishes in the class war, turn out to be the film’s most game-changing encounters.
A conflicted love letter to a city and a woman in constant states of self-renewal, “Welcome Home” marks an impressive directorial debut. Heene’s decision to chop up his narrative, and the rich inventiveness of the resulting reshuffle, gives certain scenes a free-associative resonance that permit sounds heard offscreen in earlier scenes to assume added dimensions when unfolding in an ongoing, time-shifted visual context.
Heene, who worked as production manager on several European features, extends the film’s distinctive look to every technical aspect.