The oldest profession it may be, but all the time in the world hasn’t settled the social standing of prostitution — the ethical nuances of which still leave even liberal feminist factions fiercely divided. Though it deftly eschews moral judgment of its own, Belgian helmer Peter Monsaert’s “Flemish Heaven” is likely to provoke all manner of debate among its viewers with its unusual portrait of family life within the sex industry: Cut-and-dried answers are few in a story of a brothel keeper’s struggle to protect her six-year-old daughter from the hard facts of her career, which becomes all but impossible after the girl herself becomes a victim of sexual abuse. Most searing in its raw, female-focused first half, before a melodramatic mid-film shift brings family-building to the fore, Monsaert’s sophomore feature is nonetheless compelling and compassionate to the last. Distributors, meanwhile, must weigh the film’s bleak subject matter against its conversation-piece potential.
It’s hard enough to explain to a young child what you do for a living when you’re a chartered accountant or an IT assistant. On the other hand, “Flemish Heaven” (an English-language title that might need a tweak) constructs its unusual domestic environment so candidly and convincingly that viewers may feel more empathy than expected for protagonist Sylvie (Sara Vertongen) when her cherubic kindergartener Eline (Esra Vandenbussche) finally asks, “Mommy, what’s a whore?”
It’s a learning process that Sylvie herself had to complete in early childhood. For her, sex work has always been the family trade, as she now runs the modest, well-kept brothel that her parents founded decades before — and where her mother Monique (Ingrid De Vos) still plies her trade alongside the younger prostitutes. Sylvie enforces a strict distance between their conventionally appointed suburban home and her workplace, emphatically banning her Eline from ever entering the latter. When Eline strays across the threshold one day, a worst-case scenario comes to pass, as she is briefly abducted and severely molested by an unidentified john. The ensuing psychological impasse of trauma and guilt between parent and child is devastatingly played Vertongen and Vandenbussche — mother and daughter in real life, which comes as no surprise given their palpably intimate, intuitive onscreen rapport.
From this early, shattering emotional trough, “Flemish Heaven” appears headed into stomach-knotting whodunnit territory, as Sylvie gets increasingly reckless in her amateur detective work — while Dirk (Wim Wallaert), a closely invested family friend, takes a retributive path of his own. Yet Monsaert’s script is less interested in the outcome of the search than in the more morally complex, compromised forms of closure that present themselves along the way.
It’s a slight pity that the film’s thoughtful, level-headed study of independent female prostitution as a bread-winning enterprise recedes gradually into the background, as more paternal concerns enter the domestic sphere; Vertongen’s steel-plated performance, however, never sells the snappishly intelligent but lovingly on-guard Sylvie short. While there’s an undeniable streak of narrative and emotional contrivance to the film’s second half, it’s not geared toward making viewers feel any particular way about the characters at hand; rather, it’s to keep those feelings as conflicted as possible. (Only in one dubious death-scene fakeout, late in proceedings, does Monsaert merely toy with his viewers for effect.)
Much of what occurs onscreen (and, indeed, off-screen) in “Flemish Heaven” is chilling, but that’s not to say the film itself feels at all chilly: There’s a hot-blooded humanity underpinning even its most challenging developments. Notwithstanding some seasick handheld camera, meanwhile, Monsaert’s direction favors warm stylization over the skeletal formalism that many Euro helmers might apply to such material. Taking its cue from the gaudy, cruelly child-luring lights of the brothel itself, the pic’s palette is dominated by clashing rubies and ultramarines. Cinematographer David Williamson often shoots in deliberately oppressive closeup, tight enough that you can practically feel the actors’ breath on your face, while enhancing the sense of close-quarters panic with highly selective focus — at certain points as a visual echo of the raddled, randomly detailed memories snared up in Eline’s post-traumatic stress disorder.