Belgium (2005) Dir. Miel Van Hoogenbemt
Getting through life on your own terms is always going to be a struggle. This doesn’t mean asking for help or maybe allowing yourself to occasionally be led in order to get things moving is off the table either, its knowing when the agenda is getting results for your benefit of someone else’s that is the issue.
Sandrine (Sophie Quinton) is a 21 year-old woman currently working as a promotion girl for cheese at a supermarket in the stolid town of Montigny, with ambitions of owning her own beauty salon alongside best friend Gianna (Fanny Hanciaux), a trainee hairdresser. With the support of her mother Anna (Ariane Ascaride), Sandrine is saving up to buy the premises, a rundown former butcher’s shop but can only afford the deposit.
Anna suggests Sandrine and Gianna enter the annual Miss Montigny competition for the public exposure to help get a bank loan to buy the shop. Gianna is quickly eliminated when she discovers she is pregnant, leaving Sandrine still in the race, but she soon discovers the procedure behind the pageant means it is likely to cause more problems than it solves.
Prior to Miss Montigny, Miel Van Hoogenbemt was known for documentaries and one TV drama, both of which are evident in the presentation of this film. The mise-en-scene is quiet often fly on the wall-esque due to the compact spaces many scenes take place in, whist the characterisations and episodic approach to the storytelling have a distinct TV drama quality to them.
Despite made in 2005, the dated, low-fi veneer and suburban Belgian setting gives off vibes of a 1980’s Alan Bleasdale social drama, which even the supposed glamour of the beauty pageant can’t shake. There is an inferred irony to this of the low rent nature of the titular contest being a reflection of the modest production values, though had it been shot in HD it might not have worked so well.
Of course, this isn’t a Hollywood film, so whilst it begins with the promise of a rags to riches story, or at best, a hare and the tortoise type fable, it evolves more into a low key domestic drama about a girl whose fortunes are about to change, but at the potential cost of her integrity. We can tell Sandrine wouldn’t have given the pageant a thought if Anna hadn’t forced the issue and the need for money wasn’t so vital.
This might make Anna sound like a pushy stage mum, which has some credence, but the reality is things between her and Sandrine’s work shy father Antonio (Johan Leysen) are fractious. On the night of the first stage of the contest, Sandrine espies Antonio getting sweaty with Gianna’s mother but doesn’t tell Anna, even after Antonio summarily leaves her one day.
Now through to round two, Sandrine has to contend with a lot of more suitably qualified and very determined competitors, making friends with one, Amina (Sophie Dewulf), and feeling the pressure from others, like statuesque blonde Valerie (Delphine Ysaye). Even a two-bit contest like this one has strict procedures, such as deportment practice and specific body measurement requirements which excludes Sandrine in both cases.
Gabrielle Borile’s script doesn’t display any keen intention towards casting a wry eye on beauty contests, yet comes close in highlighting the soul-destroying standards and preparation girls endure to validate egos both on and off stage. In Valerie’s case, her recent boob job to help meet measurement requirements creates distrust among the other girls. Nothing is said out loud but the dirty looks speak volumes.
For Sandrine, the further this goes on the less comfortable it becomes for her, finding everything crumble before her eyes, from her boyfriend leaving to work in Brussels, to her father leaving, falling out with Gianna and Anna still pushing her to win the contest. It comes to the point where it seems hopeless to continue but as ever, all of these problems are exacerbated by a lack of direct communication.
But the story falters in exploring this as its central theme, spending the bulk of the film building up the layers of frustration and obstacles for Sandrine to struggle to overcome, then instead of a pressure cooker explosion, it slips without incident into the final act with everything seemingly copacetic having been resolved off screen.
Imagine a murder mystery where the culprit is revealed but not shown to the audience, the story jumping from the detective about to unmask the villain to the aftermath without sharing the result – that is essentially what we get here. Not that the climax is without some drama but it comes at the expense of vital information not being shared whilst the abrupt final shot is less enigmatic and more frustrating.
All this achieves is to make us wonder what exactly is being said here, as it does appear that Borile, a prolific writer and professor of screenplay writing, and Van Hoogenbemt do have a point to make. Yet, we are left with the feeling that nothing has been said, or if it has, it went over our heads or was buried so deeply in the subtext it has be excavated to find it.
Making this so annoying is that it was building up to something quite profound, bolstered by Sophie Quinton’s personable and realistic performance as Sandrine, delivering an impressive and empathetic reading of a girl swimming against a tide of other people’s makings. The only other character with any serious focus is Anna, a wonderfully neurotic turn from Ariane Ascaride which threatens to get a little too goofy at times.
Establishing my feelings towards Miss Montigny isn’t easy as I didn’t dislike it, but felt it most definitely underperformed in most areas. Everything about it points to it being a social drama to challenge conventions but gives up in the final stretch, thus rendering it a largely forgettable experience. Maybe I missed something somewhere, but its early promised was sadly not fulfilled.