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Art House Retribution: Sundance Winner "When It Melts" is Cold as Ice

Charlotte de Bruyne works in a rare moment of levity in When It Melts / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Charlotte de Bruyne works in a rare moment of levity in When It Melts / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Veerle Baetens' When it Melts was one of the bright spots of the Sundance 2023 World Cinema Dramatic Competition. It even earned a Special Jury Prize for Rosa Marchant, the young actress at the movie's heart. We could build an argument around the idea that half belongs to Charlotte de Bruyne, who plays the same character as an adult. You can blame the slight on the dramatic construction, divided between two strands that leave the older performer at a disadvantage.

In the present, adult Eva leads a lonely life in Brussels, where she works as a photographer’s assistant. She is close to her sister Tess (Amber Metdepenningen) but avoids her parents for reasons evident later in the film. One good day, Eva starts building a block of ice, gradually spilling water in a freezer throughout the day. It is the object ominously promised to melt in the title.

Not to young to win: Marchant earned a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for acting in When It Melts / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Not to young to win: Marchant earned a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for acting in When It Melts / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

The key to what will happen when it melts lies in the past. We follow pre-teen Eva during an eventful summer. She has a tight bond with Tim (Anthony Vyt) and Laurens (Matthijs Meerten), to the extent that people in their small town call them The Three Musketeers. A poster for the 1993 movie directed by Stephen Herek adorns the barn that serves as their clubhouse, effectively dating the extended flashback to the early 90s. The place is a much-needed refuge from her conflictive family life. Father (Sebastien Dewaele) has a temper, and Mother (Naomi Velissariou) is an alcoholic, barely capable of hiding wine bottles in the dollhouse that doubles as a chicken coop. Change is in the air. The boys are hitting puberty, altering the dynamic of their friendship. The arrival of Elisa (Charlotte Van Der Eecken), a slightly older, rich girl, spells further trouble.

Teenage wasteland: Meerten, Vyt and Marchant's friendship goes sour in When It Melts / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Teenage wasteland: Meerten, Vyt and Marchant's friendship goes sour in When It Melts / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Both plot strands run parallel towards connected standoffs. Adult Eva is preparing an act of revenge during a memorial for Tim’s brother, whose death happened at the beginning of that cursed summer. Little Eva careens toward the event that marked her life and pushed her adult self away from the tight social and familial circle. An early scene hints at the nature of her trauma. Her creepy boss tries to corral her into going out on a date. When Eva finally gives in, she out-creeps the creep with a blunt proposal. Her matter-of-factness points to sexual issues, which projects a pall over the parallel narrative strand. Gray winter light dominates in the present, contrasting with the golden hue that imbues the past.

Teen curiosity around sex combusts with toxic masculinity as the boys fashion a truth-or-dare game to trick unsuspecting girls into stripping for them. Once in the barn, they are presented with a riddle. For each wrong answer, a piece of clothing must fall to the floor. Little Eva excels as a riddle master, and her presence lulls the victims into a false sense of security. Deep inside, she resents not being seen as pretty. To their eyes, she is not a female but an honorary boy, a friend who remains locked in perpetual childhood. In an off-handed comment to justify themselves, they qualify her with a low number compared to Elisa. It’s the silly, dehumanizing game some adults may play to reduce people to their physical attributes.

When It Melts ventures into the minefield of budding sexuality with daring seldom seen in American cinema, without ever feeling exploitative or morbid, the movie contemplates in a clear-eyed way how adults inadvertently affect the lives of children, be it their own or those in proximity. For all her self-assurance, Elisa is a victim of neglect. Her father unceremoniously dumped her in the care of an aunt we hear talking but never saw, always off camera. He is barely present through sporadic phone calls, buying her love with a horse that positions her as someone coming from money. Even at that young age, material privilege separates her from the townies and gives her the upper hand in power relations with her peers.

The movie mercilessly portrays how warmth can turn into ice-cold cruelty in situations that test your allegiances. Do not let the caring disposition of some adults lull you into a sense of safety. When It Melts may remind you of Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003), switching the Brechtian theatricality for middle-of-the-road naturalism, with the town turning against one of their own instead of an interloper.

Watch your back, girl!: Heijens offers comfort to Marchant in When It Melts / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Watch your back, girl!: Heijens offers comfort to Marchant in When It Melts / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

As things come to a head at the doomed party, some surface-level successes provide ballast for a shaky conclusion. The casting director hits the mark by recruiting adult actors to portray the grown children. The make-up crew does a superb job of aging Femke Heijens, who plays the role of Marie, Laurens’ mother. She is the only performer present in the past and the present, and her presence bridges the two timeframes and provides a needed sense of continuity to the plot. In a way, the movie shortchanges the adult Tim, who is barely visible at the party scene. The focus of the past becomes narrow in the present, concentrating on what kind of revenge Eva will take on those who wronged her.

At times, I wished Baetes, who co-wrote the script with Maarten Loix - based on a novel by Lize Spit - had developed the plot linearly instead of jumping back and forth from the past to the present. Perhaps that would have better served the efforts of de Bruyne as an adult Eva. But then again, that is the destructive power of the violence inflicted on her. Without healing, the pain grows over time. Hunger for retribution, real or imaginary, overtakes your life. The last image, an unnecessary coda, brings a gush of sentimentality missing from the rest of the movie.

But that is armchair directing, which serves no purpose. As it is, When It Melts provides a hard-hitting look at the liminal state between childhood and adulthood, when sex manifests as both temptation and peril, and the careless lapses of adults leave marks that last a lifetime. If crime movies crossed with social-problem films more frequently, Art House theatres would be filled with movies like this.

* Every 68 seconds, an American suffers sexual abuse. If you need help or information, visit the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, RAINN 

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