In Conversation with Director Peter Monsaert, and actors Sara Vertongen and Wim Willaert from Le Ciel Flamand.
Peter Monsaert’s second feature, Le Ciel Flamand, is a troubling tale of Sylvie (Sara Vertongen), a brothel madam in a deserted village in Belgium. When Sylvie’s six-year-old daughter, Eline (Esra Vandenbussche), accidentally stumbles into the brothel, she gets abducted by a male client. Sylvie tries her best to pick up the pieces with her estranged ex-lover, Dirk (Wim Willard), Eline’s father.
The film doesn’t bode well for modern sex workers who are trying their best to promote their work as a service. However, as Le Ciel Flamand progresses, compelling relationships and plot twists unfold. For example, Dirk and his daughter Eline become closer as a result of the tragic incident, causing Dirk to seek out redemption by searching for the pedophile.
In the midst of TIFF, I spoke with director Peter Monsaert, as well as cast members Sara Vertongen and Wim Willaert, to more closely examine this chilling and thought provoking film.
The Seventh Row (7R): What was the inspiration for this story?
Peter Monsaert (PM): My first movie, Offline, was more about myself as a child, and [with this film,] I wanted to explore the feelings about becoming [and] being a parent. So that was a starting point. I wanted to dwell on certain themes like guilt, [as well as] crime and punishment.
7R: What research did you do to create the world of the brothel?
PM: I didn’t know the world at all. I went to talk with a lot of women that are in the sex industry and a lot of organizations that work with sex workers. The first meeting I had was with a mother and a daughter, because I had written this and was wondering, “Is this too absurd?” Actually not, because it does exist. So I just went to talk to them [about] being mothers. They gave me information that is now in the script. For example, in the beginning in the film, Sylvie says, “Don’t wear too much perfume, because the wives are going to know that [the husband’s have] been here.” Those little things.
Sara Vertongen (SV): I had to throw away the [sex worker’s] champagne while the man is drinking the [glasses], so he drinks one, he orders more, and we make more money!
7R: Sara, what kind preparation did you do for your part?
SV: It started with a good script. I didn’t have to worry too much because it was there for me. The part of the brothel and the tricks [that] there are, I did the same kind of background [research] for myself. I went to talk to the women in the trade. I went to observe what they were doing when they were working. It had to do with the tone, or a kind of professional switch, between your normal life, the role you play, which is the same as being an actor. Now, switch on the cool [and] sexy; then you turn it off, and you put on the slippers [to] go home.
Regarding being a mother, that was very easy for me because the girl in the movie, Eline, is my real daughter. It made it very personal and very easy to work with, and thus, didn’t need that much preparation. I take credit for some of the acting. For some of it, I don’t, because it came true to life.
7R: How much did your daughter know about her story arc in the film?
PM: Well, obviously, we didn’t completely tell her what she goes through in the film. We always talked about a guy who hurt her, and she was sad because she had been hurt by this guy. She’s amazing. She knew all her lines better than anyone else.
SV: I’d say [to her], “You are expected to be sad. Let’s be sad.” Then you go “cut,” and she’ll go, “Blah, blah, blah, blah!” And the game is now you feel very sad today, that’s okay.
It’s very hard to talk about sex work or prostitution. It’s hard to explain if you never made love to someone, [and] that there are people who pay to make love to someone. You try to guard [your child] a bit from the world and not scare them too much. And specifically, the scene where the [abduction] happens, she didn’t really know that man was bad.
PM: In fact, the guy was talking French, and she only talks Dutch, so she really didn’t know what was happening there. Whenever the guy made something clear with his fingers, she just nodded. That was brilliant. The fact [Sara’s] daughter auditioned, turned out to be a gift.
Wim Willaret (WW): Without you knowing that it was her daughter.
PM: Sara was in the second round for female [lead role] and Esra for the child part. I already noticed Esra, and Sara said, “Well, my daughter is already in the second round.” And then everything came together.
7R: Sara, what were some of the aspects of Sylvie that you wanted to portray? How much discussion did you have with Peter about the character?
SV: I auditioned [with] the other [actors], and that was a good test of finding out together what tone works. I could try a different approach with every actor that came to read. That was a good test. By the end of that, we hady found more of the tone [Peter] wanted.
What I found fascinating about Sylvie is that her strength is also a weakness. Because you try to build a wall [to] block it out. But this means you can’t be helped because you don’t let anybody in. I think she thinks she’s too good to be in that situation. At the same time, there’s a bit of, “I’ve got everything organized.” And then, [it goes] horribly wrong, and you keep up this front.
7R: Why did you choose a remote location for the story?
PM: I want some sort of strange wasteland that you can’t really pinpoint where it is. I wanted it to be the brothel in the middle of nowhere.
7R: The title translates to Flemish Heaven, which is obviously the title of the brothel, but what did the title evoke for the rest of the film?
PM: I think Monique started the brothel 30-40 years ago with this very romantic title. We’ll provide a “heaven” for people. You can come here and have a good time, but it turns out, many years later, it becomes almost a hell. It’s the irony of it all that I wanted to convey with the title.
7R: There wasn’t a lot of backstory between Sylvie and Dirk, so for the both of you did you create a backstory and share that story with one another?
SV: You can’t portray backstory; you can only portray the now. You do try to fantasize about how did these two people meet? We did have a backstory for that.
WW: Was he kind or not? Those were the kinds of questions we [asked].
SV: Was he a client, maybe?
7R: That was what I thought: he could be a former client.
SV: I think maybe yes. Maybe it was when I was in a weaker period, and I kind of let him in. But I think his mother had a very bad opinion of what I do and who I was. He kind of looked down on me and just one remark, that’s enough for me to think, “Okay, so I’m not good enough? Well, you can go.. I don’t want anything to do [with you].” Sylvie is really being strong and being proud of what she does. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing that they’re not together. Maybe they’ll be happier apart.What binds them is the love of this child.
PM: When you meet someone on the street, or you have brief conversations, you get hints of their lives. That’s what I like to do in the films I make. You don’t tell [the] whole [story]. There’s life in between these scenes. There’s a before and an after the movie. I don’t want to tell their whole lives.
Le Ciel Flamand is still seeking North American distribution.