Sundance 2023 review: When It Melts (Veerle Baetens)

“Baetens’s powerful film initiates an important debate and deserves to be seen by a wide audience.”

Probably best known for her memorable turn in Felix van Groeningen’s Oscar-nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012), Belgian actress Veerle Baetens makes a confident and immensely moving debut behind the camera with When It Melts (Het Smelt). This Sundance premiere tackles an important but highly contentious subject matter and may prove to be a challenging watch for viewers expecting a nostalgic coming-of-age drama. With its focus on sexual violence and intense trauma, When It Melts is certainly not a pleasant experience and demands some effort from its viewers. But Baetens’s sensitive direction results in a rewarding film whose cumulative effect is quite difficult to shake off.

Adapted from Lize Spit’s novel of the same name (published in English as The Melting), Baetens’s film alternates between two distinct timelines, following 13-year-old Eva during an idyllic summer in a small town and the adult Eva’s painful return to the same place more than a decade later. We first meet Eva (played by Charlotte De Bruyne in an impressively restrained performance) as an adult as she inexplicably fills a large container with water and places it in a freezer. While the large bulk of ice she prepares is clearly associated with the title in some way, its exact function remains unclear until the shattering final part of the film. Eva struggles to communicate with a colleague who shows an interest in her, has a strained relationship with her parents, and is visibly unsettled when she receives an invitation to join a gathering in her hometown. The teenage Eva (promising newcomer Rosa Marchant) has her own set of troubles (her mother has a serious drinking problem while her two best friends are shutting her out of their group), but seems to find it easier to connect with people. Her kindness and naiveté are best captured in scenes about a sad incident involving a new friend and her horse. Despite the inevitable struggles of growing up in a dysfunctional family, the young girl has a sense of optimism and innocence, which seems to have vanished from her life entirely in the intervening years.

This alternating temporal structure distinguishes When It Melts among a growing roster of stories about sexual abuse. Crucially, unlike other stories of trauma and eventual healing, Baetens is interested in depicting the long-term (even life-long) consequences of devastating childhood events, which are too often trivialized or swept under the rug. As we observe Eva in her adult years, the dual timeline of the film invites us to compare her with her joyful younger self whose biggest concern seems to be growing out of her old and tight swimming suit, or finding a difficult riddle in order to play a game with her friends. Contributing greatly to the contrast between these two dimensions of the film are the strikingly different lighting patterns and colour palettes utilized by Baetens in each part. The childhood portion of the film is bathed in gentle sunlight, with warmer colours creating a cosy, welcoming atmosphere. The camera follows the young girl closely during what initially appears to be an enjoyable summer break. The adult Eva, on the other hand, is trapped in a gloomy winter with grey clouds seemingly casting a dark shadow over her visit to her hometown. This section of the film is suitably devoid of colour and has a drab look that matches Eva’s depressed mental state.

When It Melts takes a drastic turn when a pointless game between friends leads to horrific events. If that experience overshadows everything else that precedes it and makes the rest of the film feel like a distant memory, that is precisely the point. Eva is unable to forget and Baetens makes sure that we cannot ignore her suffering, either. However, this also means that When It Melts becomes a particularly gruelling watch with challenging ethical questions occupying the viewer’s mind during its final act. The involvement of teenage characters adds to the discomfort of watching disturbing scenes of sexual assault and each directorial choice risks having a manipulative effect. At what point does a shot linger for too long? How close should the camera get to the characters as they experience deeply troubling events? Baetens’s film carefully avoids exploitation, yet the overarching unease one feels as When It Melts approaches its expected-yet-still-shocking conclusion may still overwhelm some viewers.

While films about trauma usually offer their audiences at least some glimmer of hope by structuring their narratives around recovery and empowerment, When It Melts takes a less familiar path. Regardless of whether one finds this approach more truthful or excessively pessimistic, Baetens’s powerful film initiates an important debate and deserves to be seen by a wide audience. There are no easy answers in this story, but the questions it asks are certainly worthwhile.