LE CIEL FLAMAND is a film that will stay in my, and maybe in your, memory forever. It revolves around three women, the youngest of whom is six years old, Eline. Sylvie is Eline’s mother who works with her own mother in a brothel. How that happened and why Sylvie ended up following her mother’s footsteps is something that’s left up to your imagination. However, what happens with Eline is devastating, horrible and believe it or not, could have been avoided.
Sara Vertongen brilliantly captures Sylvie with little nuances, especially, when she had to deal with the aftermath of Eline’s sexual abuse, when the little girl steps into forbidden territory.
Prior to the Toronto International Film Festival, Sara Vertongen managed to squeeze some time from her busy schedule and spend a few minutes with me over Skype to discuss one of the most heartbreaking films this year. During our interview, I found out an interesting piece of information that the extremely talented young actress, Esra Vandenbussche, who played Eline, is Sara Vertongen’s real life daughter.
MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about your involvement in this film?
Sara Vertongen: I had seen Peter’s first film which was quite popular in Belgiuma and had a really good vibe about it. I saw he was auditioning for his second film for someone in my age group. So I just went and eventually I got into the third round. I knew it was between me and some other people and then the element came on top. I think that it helped that my daughter is the same age as the character that played my daughter. First me and my daughter auditioned separately to see if she was good and then we auditioned together. I think the package of us two being real mother and daughter clinched that deal.
MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the character you play, Sylvy, and something that we don’t get to know about her on screen?
Sara Vertongen: I’ve got a certain stern-ness about me; I shut down and I think that’s exactly what Sylvie is but in the story was missing. That’s an element of me I found in Sylvie which maybe wasn’t written in the script. What I found very interesting from myself is to investigate the world of sex workers and prostitution; it has a certain glamor to it but also it’s looked down upon by a lot of people. That was interesting for me to see how close it is to my life, treating clients a certain way and it’s not that different from how a waitress would talk to a client, a bit strict, a bit like a mother, a bit familiar but not too much. That were things I tried to pick up and integrate into my image of Sylvie. But what’s most personal to me is trying to deal with issues by shutting everybody out, that is something I discovered in her.
MOVIEMOVESME: As the person who played Sylvie I would like you to tell me what do you think went wrong that she had to become a part of the business her mother started?
Sara Vertongen: We had a long chat about that, especially me with Wim. We talked about how the hell did these two people have a child together; that was the first mystery. The second mystery was I think I my character got out of that life, but then it went wrong and she ended up having to live back at home because she didn’t have any money and had to lower her expectations from herself. Also the fact that maybe she had a kid with someone who she doesn’t let in get into her life anymore, who lives on the road. You always think you’re going to do better than the generation before you, not make the same mistakes, but before you know it you’re back in the same situation; that’s what I think happened.
MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about the mindset of you as an actress behind these three powerful scenes: the first is when Elina asks her mother what kind of work she does and the imminent pause, the second where Sylvie allows to get abused by the client just to get the opportunity to video his face, the third where Elina talks to the police officer?
Sara Vertongen: The first scene is based on what I’d say to my kid. When I talked to real sex workers, the first thing they always say is, ” I’m fine with it, my husband’s fine with it.” When I ask them if they have kids, they say yes and when I ask, “Do they know what you do or would you ever be okay with the fact that your daughter may do it in the future?” They go like, “No, never.” So it’s a strange thing being okay for you but not for their kids. The first scene is based on my idea of what I’ll explain to my child as well; she’s now seven, she has no concept of what sex is, let alone the concept of someone paying to have sex with you. So to explain it to someone that age, that’s what the pause is based on. The second scene is just thinking, “How far can I take this?” It’s got to do with Sylvie being in control until the moment he really rapes Sylvie. The third is where not much acting is involved; it’s just watching my daughter on video playing a very good scene because she’s also trying to imagine what it’s like. Then it just hit me and I managed to perform it a couple of times but I was drained after, trying to imagine what it would be like to try watch your kid describe what happened and it’s awful. So for the last scene I don’t take much credit for acting because it’s too close to reality. The other two I will!
MOVIEMOVESME: I would like you to talk about working with someone who doesn’t understand the subject matter.
Sara Vertongen: What’s unbelievable about a kid that age is that they just go with the situation. The love between us is not hard to ply because she is my daughter and so we have that bond. But as an actor I tried not to rehearse together because she was so quick and so natural; every scene she knew her lines and she had a coach who worked with her. So when she came to the scene it was fresh and new for her and I explained to her what happens to Elina. She was really shocked. I told her that mum’s never gonna let that happen to you because being in a film is different than real life. Then she really did make that click and understood. She understood that sadness but luckily doesn’t know what happened to somebody like Elina. The good thing is that she was also very close to Wim, who plays her father, and she never knew him before. A kid that age has no attitude, no preconceptions, no vanity, they’re just there in the moment and they’ll take what they get. So it was very, very easy to act with her. I was very impressed by my own daughter’s performance actually.
MOVIEMOVESME: What would you like the viewer to learn from Sylvie’s mistake?
Sara Vertongen: I think what Sylvie’s learnt is to let people in, to let them touch her and that could mean both good and bad. She might let her daughter in but she doesn’t let the pain, sadness, joy in. She keeps it all out. I think what she learnt from the film is that she’s got to open up and to let her mother in, Dick in and she definitely has to let her daughter in. She does in the beginning but during the pain she shuts the kid out as well. She learns it’s a painful thing but she has to learn to let people in because it’s less painful in the long run. I think that’s what people may also get after seeing the movie, that you can’t do it all on your own. I hope people discuss issues like is it possible to rape someone even if they’ve paid for sex? Is it okay to take revenge? These issues made me interested in the script and I hope we get across to all kinds of audiences.