Likely the film I was most interested in watching after I missed it at CIFF, in no small part due to Nick Davis’ write-up of it as part of his towering Best of the Decade feature. As soon as it became available to rent online I spent a weekend in its company.
Our protagonist is a Muslim woman named Khadija (Saaida Bentaïeb), who we first meet near the end of a coworker’s story before she and a whole room of people burst out laughing. She laughs the longest, and fails to control herself so infectiously that she gets the whole room going again even after they’ve all died down. Before we see her get her laughter under control, we cut to her working as a cleaner in a large building. It’s night, and when she hops onto the subway to return home the space is nearly deserted. She nestles into her seat, pops in her headphones, and closes her eyes. The shot lasts long enough to lull us into the comfort of this image, to feel what a relief it must be for her to be sitting down and losing herself in music we cannot hear, before cutting to a shot of Khadija alone and outside in her puffy white winter coat, leaving a message for her kid to call her back whenever they can. Khadija fell asleep on the ride home (the last ride of the evening for this line), missing her stop, and now needs to find a new way home.
The remainder of Ghost Tropic concerns her efforts to get home, hoofing it on foot, stopping periodically for one reason or another. Here Khadija is asking a security guard locking up a mall to let her in and use an ATM – he obliges, but finds there isn’t enough money for her to call a cab. She thanks him anyways, and as he walks off she expresses a fascination with the berry scent of his vape. Here Khadija is following the guard’s instructions and arriving at a late-night public bus, only for it to be declared out of order a couple seconds after she sits down. Here Khadija is finding a homeless man asleep in the cold, guarded by a small dog, calling an ambulance to take him to the hospital, and wondering what will become of the man’s dog with an EMT as he’s loaded into the vehicle. Her efforts to get home are thwarted, and so she walks, even making detours along the way. For as low-key as the film’s incidents are, I hesitate to call Ghost Tropic a plotless film, since what makes Bas Devos’ directorial hand so intoxicating is his approach to a scenario that you could imagine going differently, largely in less pleasant ways, if handled by other artists. The beauty of it resides in its commitment to depicting Khadija’s story with a real sense of humanism, embellished by a sense of stylization that floats effortlessly between grounded realism, subjective point-of-view, and experimental colors and tones. It’s like the outdoor passages of Jeanne Dielman have been stitched and stretched into their own feature, albeit laced with something much warmer at its center.
Describing this warmth feels somewhat difficult to articulate, in part because its techniques for engendering this feel unique by anyone’s standards of coaxing something comforting about a woman journeying through her city under a pitch-black sky. Ghost Tropic maintains a color palette of browns and umbers, of shadows and pure blacks, yet they never feel foreboding or restrictive of what we’re allowed to see. Grimm Vandekerckhove’s cinematography is able to integrate this naturalistic eye with the starkly artificial colors that are now just as much part of nighttime in the city as the glow of the moon: the glow of street lamps, the fuzzy brightness of a gas station, the neon reds of a bar, the deep blues of an ambulance. The visual tapestry is as astonishing as any of the light-up shoes or insane pink billboards soaking into hotel rooms in The Wild Goose Lake, replacing those neo-noir flourishes with something much more comforting, even as it displays a welcome, similar ability to keep stretching itself in new directions. To make another comparison, the sound mix – probably Ghost Tropic’s most overtly soothing element – is nicely reminiscent of Atlantics in its ability to mix its music with the already inviting ambience of its city. Brussels is still mostly empty, but the hum of its still-quiet nightlife and the specific environments Khadija takes shelter in provide conjures an atmosphere all its own, one even harder to describe now that it’s gone but feels unmistakable while you’re immersed in it.
And though I wouldn’t categorize Ghost Tropic as a character study or acting showcase, I appreciate Devos’s ability to present such an appealing woman in a very sympathetic situation without making her seem precious or helpless. Khadija mostly seems tired by the whole thing, though not so much that we worry she won’t be alright. She’s also decently curious about the people she encounters, whether they’re employees at a shop or strangers on the street. Her displays of loyalty and trust are occasionally surprising, as are the moments where she acts on impulse or selfishness. Again, it’s not a particularly deep exploration of this character, but it is one that presents a concrete personality in possession of a greater mix of moods and appreciations than is necessarily common in films that mainly work to achieve a vision as unique as this.
I watched Ghost Tropic at an absurdly late hour. Partially because this is the kind of film with the soothing gauze of a fondly remembered memory, partially because of the hour I watched it at, and partially because I watched it with the Chicago Film Festival in mind, a lot of my time spent watching it and writing about it also involved my own memories of walking home from the festival late into the evening. I rarely stuck around for the night life, preferring to walk to my bus stop either alone or in the company of friends I’d gone to the festival with. I’d look up train time and calculate whether I should walk to one stop or the other, because I would always choose to walk to a slightly farther stop if it meant I didn’t need to wait in the terminals as long. Normally the Green Line for my particular part of the city would be done for the night, so I’d go as far as I could on the other line before walking half an hour through a park and the UChicago campus before reaching my apartment and crawling into bed.
It’s not that I haven’t had unpleasant experiences at night, or that these memories are romantically evoked. Still, I treasure that Devos has created a film that presents a person walking home by herself at night in a large, empty city with this sort of delicacy, finding no inherent villainy in the shadows or the few people she meets. Khadija makes it home alright, still the same woman she was as when she left work, even as we grasp that some of her encounters have shown her new sides of seemingly familiar entities. Everyone is trying their best to what’s right, by themselves and by others, if they can extend that kindness. It’s a film that, without being sentimental, values the gestures people make on each other’s behalf, and shows its own appreciation by covering these people in something warmly protective despite its chilly winter setting. Its vantage feels real in a way that sits nicely in your gut, even as it takes pains to make this humble setup into a gorgeous cinematic object. I’ve felt better just typing about it, and if anyone wants to watch and share how it made them feel, I’m more than happy to hear about it.