Van Rompaey’s Lena looks for love
by Fabien Lemercier
16/12/2011 - Unlikely love affairs, naturalism and portraits of women clearly seem to be the major sources of inspiration in the early career of Belgian director Christophe Van Rompaey. After Moscow, Belgium [trailer], unveiled in Cannes Critics’ Week 2008, he once again explores feelings, this time from a rather more dramatic angle, in his second feature, majority Dutch production Lena [trailer], which screened in competition yesterday at Les Arcs European Film Festival. Wavering between harshness and tenderness, the film, which premiered at Toronto, confirms the director’s capacity to empathise with characters in difficulty and his skills at recreating a realistic world.
The opening scene sets the tone in stark style: a young fat girl with an inscrutable face is having sex standing up, in a sort of store room, with a lad who, once he has finished, refuses to kiss her, forbids her to fall in love with him, asks her what her name is and slips away. This girl, who leaves on her scooter across the streets of Rotterdam casting envious and sad gazes at the romantic couples springing up along the pavements, is 17-year-old Lena (Emma Levie in her first screen role). She is doing a childcare internship at a day-nursery and lives with her mother, an emaciated Polish woman (Shooting Star 2010 Agata Buzek) who surrounds her with a love that is stifling (incessant phone calls, emotional blackmail) and cruel ("the hippopotamus", "the devil’s daughter").
But Lena’s dreary life brightens up when by chance she meets good-looking, kind Daan (NielsGomperts) who makes her his official girlfriend. The young woman is completely transformed, gains confidence and moves into the beautiful house that Daan shares with his father (Jeroen Willems), an almost mute musician ("Dexter Gordon, Eric Dolphi and Charlie Parker are my best friends, I can always count on them"). But the fairy tale won’t last because this love harbours some secrets and surprises…
A coming-of-age story about the transition to adulthood, Lena accurately depicts the complexes and desire for love and emancipation in late adolescence. Linked to the theme of imbalance in parent-child relationships, the subject of the lack of or excessive affection resonates perfectly thanks to the remarkable performance by the lead actress. However, the rather felicitous twists and turns of the storyline lessen the film’s impact. But the intense framing, deft camerawork and impressive work on the lighting in the night-time scenes testify to the artistic development of a filmmaker to watch.
(Translated from French)