Venice 2023 review: Holly (Fien Troch)

Holly remains a fascinating and original way of examining what we (choose to) believe and our dualistic views on helpfulness.”

It’s hard to be a saint. But what does it mean, ‘being a saint’, in this day and age? Or in any age, really. The question of what pushes people to do good and why this is regarded as something unique and special by those who are the recipients of good deeds pervades Holly, the fifth feature film of Belgian director Fien Troch. A film about our willingness to fall back on quasi-religious sentiments in the wake of trauma, Holly is without a doubt the most suffocating film of this year’s Venice competition, at least until its cathartic (but on-the-nose) ending. A commanding use of camera and music shows Troch’s considerable talent to create atmosphere, and combined with strong central performances and intriguing but difficult subject matter makes Holly one of the more challenging but rewarding films vying for the Golden Lion.

Holly (newcomer Cathalina Geeraerts) is an outcast at her school. Her only friend besides her sister is Bart (Felix Heremans), a boy on the autistic spectrum; the rest of her classmates bully the extremely introverted girl, to the concern of her teachers. One day Holly calls in her absence from school, because she feels something bad is going to happen. Sure enough, there is a large school fire that takes the lives of ten of its students. This draws the attention of Anna (Greet Verstraete), one of the teachers and the organizer of a volunteer group dedicated to changing the world. She asks Holly to join the group for a bus trip, with the goal of working through the trauma of the school fire and trying to heal from it. Holly reveals herself to be somewhat of a natural, her presence and open heart (and ear) seemingly sucking the sadness out of the grieving families. Soon other members of the community come to Holly to be relieved of their problems, even giving her financial compensation. But Holly’s newfound sainthood, initially gratifying and uplifting, becomes overbearing and threatens to choke her.

Holly draws an interesting comparison between two of its main characters, the titular teenager and her teacher Anna. Both are driven by a desire to do good, but what are their motivations? Are they purely altruistic or is there an active angling for a pedestal at play? Holly seems to embody the former, while to an extent Anna is in a more morally grey zone when it comes to her intentions. Both characters allow Troch to wrestle with questions around altruism and how quickly simply doing a good deed is met with idolatry and religious fervour when people are emotionally vulnerable. ‘Holly’ being just one letter away from ‘Holy’ is definitely not a coincidence, and Troch is very aware of the receptiveness of smaller communities in Flanders to seeing the hand of a higher power at play; Catholicism is still widespread in the region, and Holly has a strong enough sense of place to know it.

For Geeraerts and Heremans this is their first role, and both are simply stunning. Geeraerts has a challenging role because her timid Holly is not a girl of many words, and when she speaks her introverted nature makes her sound meek and insecure. Troch chooses to mute the conversations in which she comforts people, where going by the reactions of those she speaks to her words are powerful and consoling. Holly herself is doubtful about whether she actually possesses the power to absorb grief, and that doubt intentionally extends to the audience. Does the girl really have some supernatural power, or is she simply doing good? Perhaps doing good itself is a supernatural power. Troch works her audience here; the camerawork by Frank van den Eeden, with its slow zooms and its extensive use of a shallow depth-of-field, and Johnny Jewel’s unsettling score, at once ominous and hopeful, manipulate the viewer into thinking the shoe is going to drop at any time. It doesn’t, but Troch effectively uses the tension this creates to let the audience question its own superstitions and beliefs, showing how easy it is to think something unnatural is at play here.

The religious angle almost comes naturally, although Troch doesn’t play it up too much. Why do people believe, and is belief perhaps just a way to ease the pain? It is an age-old question that is woven into the fabric of Holly. There is no clear-cut answer, so Holly doesn’t try to provide any, but its musings are intended to prod its audience into a bit of soul-searching. Bouts of humour prevent the film from becoming too sombre and self-serious, but the underlying philosophical exploration of human nature and its schizophrenic relationship with kindness and compassion are what make Holly such a compelling work of art. Last week Leonard Bernstein instructed us that art doesn’t answer questions but provokes them, its true meaning hidden in the varying answers to those questions. Holly definitely falls in line with Bernstein’s philosophy, making its audience think about the purity of altruism and keeping us in the dark about Holly’s true nature until its cathartic ending. Opting for a cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love” suddenly does hammer an answer home and it almost renders the film void, but what came before is so powerful and masterfully controlled that it can be forgiven; Holly remains a fascinating and original way of examining what we (choose to) believe and our dualistic views on helpfulness.