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Family Ties in Knots

Kris Dewitte/61st BFI London Film Festival

Cargo (2017)

This is a movie about nets. Literal nets as the ones on the fishing boat that is the family’s livelihood, but also the nets of family obligations, community ties and general humanity. Does the movie hold up to the strength of its metaphor? Not quite.

Leon Broucke (Roland Van Campenhout) owns a fishing boat based out of Ostend in Belgium and has three sons. Jean (Sam Louwyck) is the captain; Francis (Wim Willaert) is a well-liked senior member of the crew; William (Sebastien Dewaele) has an extensive criminal past and no fishing license. One day Leon has an accident; as he hangs in medical limbo the brothers discover that Leon split the responsibility for the business between Jean and William, not Francis. It’s also clear the boat, Breadwinner, is in desperate need of repairs that Jean can’t afford to finance himself. Therefore if they want to keep the business going, Jean and William have to start speaking again.

They clearly didn’t speak much in the first place – the brothers seem to be in a competition to define the words dour, gloomy and hangdog. There are no women anywhere in the movie, except as extras in one scene; and while Jean has a young son, Vico (Chiel Vande Vyvere), no mothers are ever mentioned. Work is backbreaking and relentless, whether on the boat or in the other jobs Jean takes to get by. There’s no rest, no joy and no release from ever-present danger, whether out in a stormy sea or sleeping in your own bed. First-time director Gilles Coulier, who co-wrote the script with Tom Dupont, has overcooked the goose here. A little softness, sorely missing from the scene where Jean explains to Vico why sailors have tattoos, would have made the hardness worse. And wouldn’t a mother who also needed taking care of have added a little poignancy to the family’s dilemma?

As it is, the movie falls into the poisonous Belgian trap (also done this year in “Raw,” a much better film where this flaw is also much more obvious) of heaping all its emotions onto the shoulders of the sole character of color, who is also gay. Here that person is Saïd (Roda Fawaz), who gets two short scenes and more personality in them than the main cast combined. We all know what’s going on there; and it’s got to stop.

That aside, the final part of the film seems to say that the main net these people are caught in is that of their habits. Are they able to grow or change, or do they prefer the routines they have always known and the lies they have always told? Jean’s major, and surprising, decision leads to a horrifying denouement that’s even more tragic due to the understated nature with which David Williamson filmed it. The cost of maintaining the status quo is true evil, and it’s not quite clear whether the filmmakers or the characters alike realize it. Although the worst net to be caught in is one you’re not aware of.


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