Living in Another World
By Leonardo Goi
Dir. Bas Devos, Belgium, Cinema Guild
If you kept an eye on the critical responses to the Berlinale earlier this year, chances are you read about one of the festival’s standouts, Bas Devos’s Here, in largely diminutive terms—a “small,” “tiny,” “almost-perfect little film.” This is nothing new for the 40-year-old Belgian director; the small-scale vocabulary has been hastily applied to his filmography ever since his 2014 debut Violet. And while not technically incorrect—none of his four features reaches the 90-minute mark, all have been made with modest means—to peg his work as that of a miniaturist only lays bare the limited language we use to describe a film, and our frustrating tendency to conflate budget (and runtime) with scope. Devos’s cinema is expansive, and that’s especially true in Here, possibly his biggest and most ambitious to date.
Which is all the more striking to say about a film that’s also the director’s shortest and most restrained. By the end of the 2010s, Devos’s oeuvre traded the anxieties that propelled his first two projects for a much more hopeful and luminous register. If Violet was a Haneke-adjacent portrait of a teenager grappling with his role in an unspeakable tragedy, and Hellhole (2019) a city-wide canvas of Brussels haunted by the specter of terrorism, Ghost Tropic (2019) came as a revelatory U-turn, a nocturnal odyssey tracking a widow who sleeps through her local metro stop in Brussels and walks home alone at night. Here follows in its predecessor’s footsteps. No longer fueled by the horror and trauma of his earlier work, the film has no interest in creating unnecessary tension—which is not to suggest that violence is absent, only that characters aren’t defined by it.
Written by Devos, Here concerns Stefan (Stefan Gota), a thirty-something Brussels-based construction worker from Romania on his way home for a summer break. It’s the weekend before the trip, and leftovers in the fridge turn into an opportunity to whip up some soup and hand portions out to friends and family, a series of encounters that mirrors the daisy chain structure of Ghost Tropic. But Here parallels Stefan’s meanderings with a second thread: 20 minutes in, we’re introduced to Shuxiu (Liyo Gong), a Belgian-Chinese bryologist who’s studying the mosses growing in and around Brussels and helping out at her aunt’s eatery.
Compared to the more fragmented, mosaic-like narratives of Violet and Hellhole, Here is a linear experience; Stefan and Shuxiu’s storylines unfold along separate tracks until a chance encounter at her family restaurant and then another in the woods where she searches for mosses. But the plot, such as it is, remains resolutely low stakes. The incidents paving the couple’s wanderings (a broken car, a torrential summer storm) are almost the stuff of fairy tales, and the film itself seems to hang in a dreamlike realm for long passages, which graces its most on-the-nose associations (like a subplot following the rootless Stefan as he looks to plant some seeds found in his pocket) with an ethereal beauty. Though the meet-cute threatens to swell Here into a romantic comedy—one operating in the same oneiric language of Alexandre Koberidze’s What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?—Devos is after something far more intricate.
Stefan and Shuxiu are only the most recent additions to an ever-growing pantheon of deracinated outcasts populating the director’s films; starting with Hellhole, Devos has been training his camera on Brussels’s underexposed and underrepresented. In its barest terms, Here tells a migration story, a portrait of two drifters as they negotiate their ties to an alien milieu they’ve chosen to call home. And yet, attuned as it is to their out-of-placeness, the film doesn’t fully articulate their alienation, and it’s all the stronger for that restraint. Instead of dishing out declarative statements or big moments, Devos focuses on everyday, understated symptoms—like Stefan’s insomnia, or the chronic fatigue he describes to his sister Anca (Alina Constantin), or his interactions with other Romanians in the city.
This attention to the minutiae of Stefan’s migrant experience is perhaps the only sense in which Here really is small. It is also why Devos yields an immeasurably more perceptive study of diaspora than Celine Song’s Past Lives (2023), which underlined its protagonist’s dislocation but sacrificed all its nuance for a frictionless and unspecific account of migrant life. For Devos, the disconnect his characters suffer amounts to a kind of sleepwalking, a perpetual in-betweennesses that makes it impossible for them to fully commune with their adoptive turf. In one key passage, Shuxiu recalls the day she woke up and couldn’t remember the names of the objects around her, until she “surrendered to the oneness of all things,” and the bedroom “became part” of her. All of Devos’s films work to collapse the distance between their characters and the spaces they inhabit. But where Violet and Hellhole couch that tension in cautionary terms—a reminder that violence can come from anyone, anywhere—Here sees it as a sort of catharsis. The operative sensation is communion, and the feeling Shuxiu describes, this wish to merge with the world around her, is the closest the film comes to an articulated statement of purpose.
That Here does finally conjure a sense of transcendence is because Devos’s filmmaking is, crucially, in service to the story. After Ghost Tropic, this is the second film of his shot by Grimm Vandekerckhove, who had replaced Nicolas Karakatsanis, the cinematographer responsible for some of Devos’s most ambitious sequences in his first two features—which included a five-minute uninterrupted shot in Hellhole that sees the camera circle around a house at daybreak over a particularly heart-shaking moment in the lives of its tenants. Yet such virtuosity occasionally made Devos’s earliest films feel overly calculated. Their deftness and vision are indisputable, but so is a certain strain as they reach for the transcendent. Vandekerckhove’s camerawork in Here is far less conspicuous. He mixes static views of the city and its interiors with sinuous shots that send us traveling across the forest, working with a 4:3 ratio that feels more intimate than claustrophobic, and a 16mm stock that heightens the warmth of Stefan’s perambulations. Ameel Brecht’s score is just as unobtrusive as it was in Ghost Tropic, used briefly and sporadically over the soundscapes of woods and city—the rustling of leaves, the faint blaring of sirens, the trains chugging in the distance. “Listen!” Shuxiu whispers to Stefan at a crucial juncture, and for a film designed to deepen our relationship with the land we walk on, to rejig the way we think of our place in it, the word doubles as a mission statement.
Zooming in from the skeletal construction sites dotting the city to the infinitesimal plants living several meters down below, Here transitions from macro to micro, echoing another, much larger shift: one from secularism to the realm of the spiritual. This is a film that’s attuned to both the earthly concerns with money and work and with the more ineffable but no less pressing urge to belong. From a lesser director, its oneiric detours (skyward glimpses of the forest under a summer shower, a long montage of mosses captured in hyper-closeups) might have come across as contrived. In Devos’s hands, they are the culmination of a journey that began long before Here: a portrait of a city as a breathing organism, no less alive and mysterious than those who roam it.