In hindsight, the expressionistic collaborative feature Seagulls Are Dying in the Harbor by Flemish filmmakers Roland Verhavert, Ivo Michiels, and Rik Kuypers proves especially suited as a milestone film for Belgian national cinema, carrying the international distinction as the country’s first feature film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Set in postwar Antwerp, the film evokes the profound melancholy and bittersweet loss of innocence of René Clément’s Forbidden Games in its depiction of the friendship between a pair of unlikely kindred spirits trying to make sense of their upended (and uprooted) lives in the forbidding, and increasingly alien urban landscape of postwar Belgium: a nameless, seemingly undocumented drifter (Julien Schoenaerts) and former German war camp prisoner desperately seeking passage out of the country, and a neglected, French-speaking orphaned girl named Gigi who has been adopted by an older, emotionally distant Flemish family (perhaps out of potential financial gain from an undisclosed inheritance) whose only glimpse of freedom comes from the stolen moments enabled by her adoptive older sister who exploits her afternoon playtime as a chaperoning ruse to rendezvous with her lover. Eschewing the inevitable sentimentality of the “little girl lost” premise of Forbidden Games, the film instead reflects the unsentimentality and cynicism of Europe’s postwar lost generation, where the inhumanity of war and instinctuality for survival have metamorphosed into social indifference, cruelty, exploitation, hedonism, and self-absorption.
But beyond the film’s noteworthiness as a trailblazer in the history of cinema (as well as its incisive, broader commentary on the human travails of war), the film is also a unique and intimate window into the country’s indigenous experience, not only with the isolative reality of cultural pluralism in contemporary Belgium, but also with the collective toll of occupation, displacement, and exile caused by the war. Intrinsic in this process of reconciliation with history is the legacy of occupation on the national psyche – first by Germany, and subsequently (albeit obliquely), by the Allied liberators stationed to secure the borders and assist in the country’s reconstruction – a trauma that has further estranged an already culturally bifurcated country from its own sense of national identity. Within this framework of dispossession and figurative erasure, the characterization of the enigmatic, anonymous, multilingual everyman becomes an ideal representation on the country’s struggle with its own sense of sovereignty and identity in light of an increasingly fractured and fragile national unity and economic decimation. Moreover, in capturing the pervasive national sentiment of profound disorientation through expressionistic imagery (most notably, in the atmospheric, noir-like texture of the opening sequence that establishes the film’s sense of imbalance), stark and desolate, yet oppressively claustrophobic industrial landscapes (that prefigure Antonioni’s psychological landscapes), and acute angle dolly crane shots (especially in the repeated image of the city street through the increasingly distant perspective of a moving structural elevator) that figuratively reflect the unnamed drifter’s estrangement from his native community in the aftermath of war and occupation, the filmmakers transform the interiority of one person’s struggle into a broader metaphor for a country’s soul searching, implicitly correlating the drifter’s moral dilemma with the societal estrangement of cultural division. In juxtaposing a sense of disorientation with the crisis of imposed (and suppressed) identity, the film articulates a compelling and impassioned cautionary tale for the preservation for the country’s indigenous, plural identity through tolerance, self-respect, and the restoration of humanity.
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