Cam, a clever and often terrifying Netflix horror movie about a cam-girl whose identity is stolen, generated massive buzz this year for its sex-positive viewpoint. It was written by an ex cam-girl, adding to the authenticity of the whole enterprise, and ensuring that sex work is presented as a viable career option — something still rarely seen in mainstream cinema. If Flemish Heaven isn’t exactly positive about sex work, the flick at least isn’t negative either or, crucially, judgmental about the reasons a woman might decide to sleep with men for money. It’s still a step in the right direction for representation.
Sylvie is a normal working mother with a young daughter about to turn six. The duo share a modest, suburban home, with the kid clearly wanting for nothing given she has a Furby — the most coveted toy in all the land, even in 2018. In fact, the only thing that’s strange about their sweet mother-daughter relationship is how they share sandwiches in the car outside Sylvie’s workplace which, as she explains to young Eline, is somewhere she helps people who need “hugs.” They can never, ever go inside in spite of Eline’s obvious curiosity about the place.
The 10th feature from Belgian writer-director Peter Monsaert (Offline) doesn’t signpost the fact that its protagonist is a prostitute. In fact, the word “brothel” isn’t even uttered until about three quarters of the way through. Later, still, the word “whore” is used, first by a rough client and then by a confused Eline who’s being teased in school. There are hints about Sylive’s profession from the outset as she distractedly packs fancy lingerie for what appears to be a trip away, but it’s just the working day ahead, of course.
Prostitution is the family business, with Sylvie working alongside her mother, who started the brothel with her late husband (and Sylvie’s father). Monsaert’s great strength is in portraying their close-knit family unit as completely normal, in spite of the particulars of the job done by both mother and grandmother. At first, it seems Sylvie has everything under control. Although she’s straightforward with her daughter about the facts of life — even explaining where babies come from — she shelters her, too.
Their whole world comes crashing down, however, when, after venturing inside the brothel, Eline is sexually abused by a client. The doctor examining her believes Sylvie might be involved somehow, given the nature of her work, while a well-meaning but stern police officer points out that the crime scene isn’t exactly “innocent.” Sylvie weeps openly on the drive home, making futile attempts to wipe the abuser’s fingerprints off the steering wheel. She clearly blames herself for what’s happened to her kid, along with everybody else.
Everybody Sylvie comes into contact with passes judgment, but Monsaert makes an impassioned case for her as a single mother just trying to do the best for her family. As played by a steely-eyed Sara Vertongen, recalling a young Meryl Streep in the way her eyes narrow after being patronized or judged, Sylvie looks like a regular working mom. She’s not 20 years old, dressed trashy or hanging out on street corners. Nor is she saved by the affections of the well-meaning Dirk who, unbeknownst to Eline, isn’t actually her uncle.
Pretty Woman this assuredly ain’t, which is particularly impressive given how prostitution is usually represented in film as either a last resort or the mark of a woman on the edge. Sylvie is completely in control of her family life, until she isn’t. The final act of the film sees both she and Dirk desperately trying to locate the random john who abused Eline. Meanwhile, the once curious kid (who has to return to school in the aftermath, like nothing has happened), retreats into herself, drawing circles over and over again, the true meaning of which is heartbreakingly revealed in the video of her victim testimony.
Flemish Heaven, the English language title of which makes little sense in the context of the film, is a story about abuse but it isn’t an abuse movie. Instead, Monsaert tackles the struggles women, and particularly single mothers, face on a daily basis while just trying to keep everything ticking over in a world that would rather pretend they don’t exist. It wouldn’t matter if Sylvie was an office worker rather than a sex worker, because she’d still be at the bottom of the totem pole as far as society is concerned.
Sex crimes are notoriously difficult to prosecute, so Monsaert doesn’t offer any easy answers. Even when the film strays into melodramatic amateur detective antics, he keeps Sylvie front and center. She’s a formidable protagonist; tough, determined and self-sufficient but clearly damaged by the life she’s chosen, and the consequences of that life on both her and her child. Her tough exterior cracks as Eline tells her mother quietly “they aren’t nice hugs at your work.”
Dirk (Wim Willaert), meanwhile, is a regular, sweet guy, a bus driver just looking to make it by, but a throwaway comment about his mother suggests that even he judges Sylvie for the choices she’s made. Still, when he thinks he’s found the man who hurt his daughter, his soft, kind features twist into palpable agony over how little he’s done to protect her in the six years she’s been alive.
Flemish Heaven isn’t exploitative or voyeuristic, in spite of its dark subject matter. It’s not even particularly violent, with much of its horror implied from a beaten up prostitute and Eline’s assault, the explicit details of which are never fully revealed. Monsaert focuses on the aftermath of violent crime, and on its victims, rather than the perpetrators. The men who visit the brothel are ciphers, ships passing in the night who could passingly be described as racist, sexist, aggressive or simply lonely.
Music is sparingly used throughout. It’s barely even noticeable for the most part, making Flemish Heaven‘s darkest moments more impactful. The cinematography, warm and bright rather than harsh and clinical the way stories about sex work are often presented, invokes dashes of red to invoke the red light so essential Sylvie’s work. Aline herself loves red, even putting a red light on her own dollhouse so clients know where to go.
This could’ve been a cold study of a difficult life but Monsaert focuses on love instead, and on growth through hardship. Real-life mother-daughter duo Vertongen and Esra Vandenbussche (who plays Eline) give Flemish Heaven its beating heart. Their easy onscreen chemistry elevates the story while the often awkward exchanges with Dirk suggest a broken family unit that could still be fixed in the right circumstances. They don’t have all the answers, and neither does Monsaert, but they’re doing the best they can and sometimes that’s enough.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.