Young Critics Review: Here - Sam Warren Miel
‘Glory be to God for dappled things’, wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins; Bas Devos has followed the entirely nocturnal Ghost Tropic (2019) with a film that takes shelter in the brindled half-light under canopies of trees in the greenery around Brussels.
Here covers the last days Romanian construction worker Stefan (Stefan Gota) spends in the city before he heads home for vacation. He visits friends and family, giving them Tupperware containers full of the soup he’s made to use up what’s left in his fridge. Sheltering in a Chinese restaurant during a storm, he meets Shuxiu (Liyo Gong), a botanist specialising in mosses. The next day, as he explores an unfamiliar wedge of urban forest, he runs into her again.
The picture has a hazy, languid quality, like a day on cough medicine. The 16mm grain mollifies, and here Academy ratio, so often self-consciously, pedantically geometric in contemporary art cinema, provides a cosy little square to make oneself snug inside. The relentless gentleness, the green leaves against grey concrete, the careful recording of soft ambient sound – all this surely calls to mind Apichatpong Weerasethakul, master of cinematic lullabies. But though Here has one moment of distinctly Apichatpongian weirdness, it’s hard to imagine Devos ever ending a film with a spaceship’s ascent into the ether, as the Thai director recently did. Shuxiu devotes her life to crouching by trees, looking for the smallest botanical variations. Soon Stefan is crouching next to her. Affection is not looking into the other’s eyes but looking with shared intensity at the earth below. Downward is heavenward.
Bas Devos makes films the way you and I offer guests tea and biscuits. As has become a trademark, the whole crew is credited on one screen, after the words ‘A film by’. The casual utopianism of that gesture is of a piece with what has preceded it. Is life like this? Why can’t life be like this? This film in which, barring a kind of wistful tiredness, not a single negative emotion is expressed; in which a voice is raised exactly once, when a mechanic excitedly announces ‘soup!’ to his coworkers; this film would perhaps be impossible to take if it were structured around – or worse, as – any kind of lesson or revelation. But every snatch of benevolence that takes place is just done: you wake up your dozing friend at his bus stop, you deliver daikon to your aunt, you visit your sister at work just because you need to hear the sound of her voice, and maybe you start to fall in love with someone. So emptied of freighted incident, the picture suffers whenever anything rhetorical interrupts it – a couple of overcooked plant/human analogies jangle like bum notes in a raga. But a magical sequence in which the human action pauses for something like The Private Life of Plants minus Attenborough’s dulcet tones signals Devos’s ambitions to combine the denarrativized presentations of a Schanelec or a Frammartino with the muted charm of Kaurismäki’s more optimistic moments. For almost all of its 82 minutes, it’s totally enchanting, and like everything that is truly lovely, it aches. Shuxiu, in voiceover, at random: ‘I remember, my colour is green.’
Sam Warren Miell
Sam Warren Miell comes from Lewisham in South East London, and writes about film and art when he's not doing his day job in the charity sector. His academic background is in English literature, where he worked on the Romantics and recent British avant-garde poetry. This dual interest in the canonical and the experimental also maps fairly well onto his cinematic proclivities, which span from Ford and Hawks to Benning and Rousseau.