Le Passé Devant Nous: The Best Film Of 2017 You Probably Didn’t See
French language films have a reputation for being moody, at times melodramatic, and eternally aesthetically engaging, and while such a sweeping generalization doesn’t apply across the board, these qualities do appear in spades in some of the most beloved francophone releases throughout cinematic history. Le Passé Devant Nous (English title: Past Imperfect), a Belgian film written and directed by the monstrously talented Nathalie Teirlinck, certainly deserves to be added to this list, as it is, quite simply, one of the most emotionally and visually stunning pictures of the year in any language.
Starring Evelyne Brochu, the Québécoise actress perhaps best known for playing Dr. Delphine Cormier on Orphan Black and Aurora Luft on the Canadian-Hungarian drama X-Company, the film follows Alice, an escort who finds herself having to face motherhood head-on after the death of her ex leaves her with custody of her young son Robin (Zuri François). While on paper, the plot seems like nothing special, on screen, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
It would be fair to call Alice a loner; her life consists of routine visits with clients to whom she repeats the same flowery phrases. There’s lavish praise and promises that this man isn’t like any of the others, and each time Alice repeats them, her self-imposed isolation becomes more pronounced and much more painful to watch (and, one imagines, to experience). When the six-year-old son she left behind at birth reenters her life, Alice’s world is turned on its head, and the journey that ensues is filled with equal amounts of joy and heartache.
Young Robin is, as most six-year-olds are, unrepentantly curious about the confusing situation he now finds himself in, and his inquisitiveness naturally extends to his mother, whom he calls by her first name, having never known her as a true maternal figure. And, while Alice attempts to keep the child in the dark as to the true nature of her employment, Robin is all-too clever and knows that when she leaves him alone in her large, empty apartment, she is off doing things she is ashamed of (or at the very least, certainly not proud of).
Brochu’s portrayal of Alice is restrained but certainly not lacking in passion, perfectly towing the line between detachment and utter despair. It’s at times haunting; watching her ride wordlessly in the back of a black car to see another client, head pressed against the window as the city lights blur outside so perfectly captures the inherent loneliness in Alice’s world that it feels like a punch in the stomach. Of course, that scene is only one such moment in Past Imperfect. Another comes during a scene in which Alice returns home to find Robin gone. He is, of course, safe and sound with a neighbor, but the sheer panic, terror, and even guilt she experiences as she searches for him is palpable and a stark contrast to the relative aloofness Alice previously displayed toward all things, including her son. It is, for lack of a better description, some pretty stellar acting.
Not to be ignored, of course, is Teirlinck, whose writing and direction blend seamlessly to create the heady ambiance and measured dialogue which serve as the canvas on which Brochu’s performance truly sings. Past Imperfect carries with it a quietude even in the midst of chaos, an ebbing sense of solitude marked by small but poignant moments of joy, such as when Alice, Robin, and Alice’s longtime driver Michel break into a hotel swimming pool for a late night dip. It’s these instances of levity which make the heavy weight of the character’s lives seem bearable and even, perhaps, full of hope.
Le Passé Devant Nous requires a tacit understanding of the darker parts of the human condition, of the lengths to which loneliness, pain, and trauma can drive a person or limit their ability to move forward. It asks us to find the beauty in that, to push ourselves to accept that which is outside of our own realm of experience and to feel compassion for someone whose actions defy our own understandings. It makes no apologies for its characters’ perceived shortcomings, nor does it aim to make amends. Instead, it simply allows itself to be imperfect, and that’s exactly what makes it so damn good.