When It Melts (Het Smelt): Sundance 2023 Film Review

Year: 2023

Runtime: 111 minutes

Director: Veerle Baetens

Writers: Veerle Baetens and Maarten Loix, based on the novel by Lize Spit

Starring: Charlotte De Bruyne, Rosa Marchant, Sebastien Dewaele, Naomi Velissariou

By Sarah Manvel

The callousness and narcissism of teenagers, especially male ones, are seen as an immovable part of human nature, and adults will do almost anything to dodge dealing with that. Whether that’s shrugging ‘boys will be boys’ or forcibly controlling the bodies of young women, our society simply does not want to acknowledge in any way the extreme acts of cruelty and violence young people are capable of. Not to try to prevent them, and neither to handle the immediate aftermath when they do happen; instead that’s left for when the children themselves grow up. This generational cowardice stems from two sources: an adult refusal to examine what our own childhoods contained, and the pernicious idea that innocence is best preserved through ignorance. “When It Melts” knows this in its bones, and the only truly shocking part of this movie is how forthright it is about that knowledge.

Outside of the Belgian and French film industries, director Veerle Baetens, who co-wrote the script with Maarten Loix, is primarily known as the star of “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” the 2013 Oscar-nominated Belgian film about an Americana-obsessed couple, a tattoo artist and a rockabilly musician, whose little daughter dies of cancer. It is an intensive study about how people sometimes find a home in music from a different culture, but got its surprise nomination for its sharp knowledge about grief and the role international politics can play in medicine. But that moody, sadly knowing movie – which is much better than that precis makes it sound, and undoubtedly the reason why “When It Melts” came to the attention of the Sundance Film Festival – is a relaxing beach vacation compared to this. Ms Baetens has taken a topic most people wouldn’t care to touch and made an extraordinary, and extraordinarily sensitive, movie. 

The story is told in two intertwined threads. One is about the summer Eva (Rosa Marchant) is thirteen. She lives in a Flemish-speaking village with her alcoholic mother Tine (Naomi Velissariou), bully of a father Johan (Sebastien Dewaele), and needy little sister Tess (Amber Metdepenningen). Her two best friends are Tim (Anthony Vyt), whose older brother died in an accident on the family farm the year before, and Laurens (Matthijs Meertens), whose mother Marie (Femke Heijens) owns the butcher shop. Everyone calls Eva, Laurens and Tim the three musketeers. In the present moment Eva (Charlotte De Bruyne) lives a mostly solitary life in French-speaking Brussels, but she keeps in touch with Tess (Femke Van der Steen), who has recently bought a house with her boyfriend. To Tess’s annoyance, Eva refuses to speak with their parents, and when Tess tries to force a reunion Eva simply leaves. That night she receives a Facebook invite to an event the adult Tim (Spencer Bogaert) is hosting on the farm, which he now operates with a wife and child; it’s clear from the replies the whole village will be there. Eva plugs in a chest freezer and makes herself a large block of ice. She puts the ice in her car, accepts the invite, and starts to drive. 

The core of the younger summer wraps around three things. Firstly, Tim and Laurens have hit puberty, but Eva has not. They refuse to treat Eva as a girl because she is their friend, and Eva doesn’t understand the distinction they are making. Secondly, the entire village is aware of how bad things are at home for Eva and Tess – there’s a quietly awful moment at a block party when Johan takes a passed-out Tine home in a wheelbarrow – but no one does anything directly for the girls. Only Marie occasionally comments to Eva about her friendship with the boys, a straw at which Eva desperately clutches. Thirdly, at that block party an older girl named Elisa (Charlotte Van Der Eecken) shows up on horseback in a bikini top; Tim and Laurens practically slaver at the mouth. Elisa’s father has dumped her with older relatives, who happen to be Eva’s neighbours for the summer, and Eva is so hungry for attention she ignores Elisa’s rudeness and tries to make friends with her via the horse. 

In the present moment, Eva has a lot less to do, except creep around and lay in place what appears to be a long-planned revenge. It relies on her still knowing the village inside out, which is very believable, but the seemingly overnight decision to take such a drastic step, especially when so little of her adult life is shown, is hard to take. And that’s also because the young Eva shows a fighting spirit and an instinct for the right thing that’s remarkable, especially in a kid so starved of affection. Her only real mistake is to trust Laurens and Tim, despite the new tension in their friendship and their sudden eagerness about sex stuff, which she still doesn’t understand. When they begin a series of inappropriate, and therefore secret, games with the village girls, at first they forcibly exclude Eva with insults no one should ever forgive. But with her father’s help, she learns a riddle that becomes the focus of the games – and the meaning of the movie’s title – that allows her back alongside the boys, where she thinks she belongs. Cinematographer Frederic Van Zandycke, editor Thomas Pooters and Ms Baetens protect the young cast, but the stakes are vividly, uncomfortably high and Eva’s feelings and moods are almost overwhelmingly palpable. 

How Eva learns what her friends really think of her is through an act of absolutely believable cruelty that is only possible with Elisa’s collusion, which makes the brutality that much worse. This movie knows the really awful truth of how girls and women hurt each other in order to curry favour with boys and men. The worst part is Eva knew this already, because of how Tine blames her for her own drinking, but loves and cuddles Tess. Poor Eva had thought she and her friends would be different, but what Tim, Laurens and Elisa do to her is life’s worst lesson taught one of the worst possible ways.

That horrible lesson Eva learns is so awful people turn their backs from it, in life and in art, but it happens all the time and it should not take bravery to face it. That’s bravery from the actresses (especially Miss Marchant), bravery from everyone involved in the making of this film, and to a much lesser extent bravery from people who talk about art on this topic. Silence on these matters improves nothing for anybody, because these difficult topics need to be taught afresh to every generation of kids, every time. As a society we’ve managed in our lifetimes a huge cultural awareness and general acceptance of homosexuality that was literally unfathomable fifty years ago. Why is sexual violence the last taboo? 

Well, the reason for that is no one wants to think of themselves as the villain. If that means bitches be crazy, or young girls aren’t as innocent as they make out, or it takes two to tango, people will sacrifice almost anything to preserve their good sense of themselves. And that means the movie’s only real flaw is its ending. Eva’s final decision after the scene in the barn is left ambiguous, and it is certainly poetic justice, but it’s also a betrayal of that fighting spirit that nothing in the build-up has even hinted at. And that’s not just a betrayal of herself, which would be bad enough. It’s a betrayal of life itself. That’s a melodramatic sentence, but it’s also true. Cowardice is certainly an answer, but it’s never the right one. 


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