While aesthetically beautiful, Bas Devos’ fourth feature film Here fails to meaningfully answer the questions of identity it poses.
On the surface, Here, Bas Devos’ fourth feature film, is beautiful. It is shot with a clear love for Brussels and a thoughtfulness for the things in life that we gloss over like moss growing in between the cracks of concrete on a city street. However, the movie summates in a lackluster translation of an interesting concept.
Here follows Stefan (Stefan Gota), a construction worker living abroad in Brussels who is preparing to go on a four-week leave to see his mother back home and questioning whether or not he should return back to Brussels after his visit. In preparation for his long leave, and potentially permanent move, he uses all the vegetables left in his fridge to make a soup that he hands out to his family and friends as a farewell gift. On the day he is supposed to leave, he comes across Shuxiu (Liyo Gong), a bryologist studying moss growing in the woods just outside the city, and decides to instead spend the day with her acknowledging the life growing all around him.
At its heart, Here wants to be a film about identity that tackles questions like “What constitutes the concept of home?” or “How do you decide where to plant your roots?”. Stefan faces long, sleepless nights, stressed or overwhelmed by the questions he has about where he should be in life and who he should be in life. The film, however, spends more time leaning into its appreciation of nature and the city of Brussels than developing our lead characters in a meaningful way to provide answers to its questions about identity.
This isn’t to say Bravos does not make strong parallels and understated attempts to tackle the moral issues that Stefan faces. The soup is symbolic of the care and love he has for the people he is giving it out to. He wants them to be taken care of in his absence and he uses all the food he has left in his fridge in order to show the people he loves his feelings towards them. He doesn’t know how to cook anything else, yet he does what he can to show appreciation to the people who have been a significant part of his life in Brussels.
The heavy focus on nature and moss, as well as the inclusion of Shuxiu’s character as a whole, are meant to show that no matter what goes on in life, nature persists. Nature was here before mankind, and it will be here long after. In potentially the most important dialogue in the film, Shuxiu’s character talks about waking up from a dream and feeling frozen in a sense, unable to verbalize any of her thoughts or say words to identify the objects around her. She says after her initial panic subsides, she feels at peace. She feels like she is part of the scene of the room and is unable to distinguish herself from her surroundings in a way that shows her she is “surrounded by the oneness of ten thousand things”.
It’s at moments like this where the film feels most meaningful. Her monologue is set to shots of nature, driving home the concept that while you may feel alone or unsure if you are in or at the “right place” in your life, you are more a part of the world than you could ever imagine. But these moments, unfortunately, are scarce as the rest of the dialogue is far too surfaced to drive home this point.
The film relies on the unassuming beauty of nature but does not deliver any meaningful contributions in terms of dialogue, characters or plot development. It wants to dare its audience to dive deeper than surface level and see the wonder in things we normally don’t pay mind to, but fails to do so itself. The importance of scenes often feels far too subtle and at other times far too literal, like when Stefan is trying to decide where to plant the seeds that have magically accumulated in his shorts pocket the week he is trying to figure out if he should stay or go.
The true issue with Here is that, while it focuses primarily on the city of Brussels and nature growing all around it, the worldbuilding within the story is not well developed. The film wants to take its time exploring and imploring audiences to pay attention to the scenery but there is no connection built between the audience and the world the film exists in. We don’t really know Stefan outside of his big question of whether he should stay or go. We spend even less time with Shuxiu. In their scenes together there is not a clear chemistry or attraction that makes you want to watch them explore the world together. The movie asks you to invest your time and energy into this story and appreciate its symbolism but is so understated that it lacks the ability to draw in its audience.
While Here works to show the value of appreciating the things in life and nature that often go unacknowledged, it struggles (much like its main character) to make a decision on what it wants to say.
Here will open in New York at Film at Lincoln Center on February 9, 2024.