Chicago: Becoming Mona
14 October 2020
The problem with kindness...
Selected for Chicago New Directors Competition, Becoming Mona, Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden's follow-on from their masterly documentary Ne me quitte pas (2013), is an altogether different proposition. It is a dramatic fiction, but no less impressive in its searingly poignant portrait of a girl maturing into adulthood.
The second novel of Flemish author Griet Op De Beeck, ‘Kom hier dat ik u kus' (English language title: ‘Mona in Three Acts') was an immediate best-seller, and a book that filmmaker couple Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden say they intrinsically understood, in terms of both tone and theme.
Told in three acts, the film, produced by Submarine and supported by the Netherlands Film Fund and already winner of Dutch Critics Prize at the Netherlands Film Festival, follows the life of Mona from pre-pubescence though to her mid-thirties. She is a girl/woman who is naturally good and kind, but who is invariably exploited because of these qualities. She is also prone to seeking out, or falling into, friendships or relationships that repeat this pattern of exploitation. It takes a series of incidents, which include a family death and the realisation that one of her established professional relationships has something akin to abuse at its root, to take the first steps towards transformation into something, or somebody, else.
"This especially is very Flemish, the way that you accept that your life is not very good, and you don't see any alternative," says Lubbe Bakker. "Maybe you feel in your gut it should be better but you just think this is the way it is because people tell us, because society tells us, not to try and change things, because it's impossible."
Still: Becoming Mona
The family set-up in the film is bourgeois. Mona's father is a mild-mannered dentist with a new wife in the form of Marie, who is mercurial and prone to mammoth mood swings the arrival of which the family dreads, especially as they are timed for moments of celebration such as Christmas or the announcement of a pregnancy. Even Mona's real mother, killed in a car crash, was, we observe, harsh and unforgiving of her daughter, and dismissive of her kindly husband.
This deterministic trajectory continues into later life as Mona develops an initially touching, later sour, relationship with writer Louis, and an uneasy alliance with egotistical, sometimes cruel, theatre director Marcus. Neither men are bad as such, merely self-obsessed, a trait that Mona is prepared to either overlook or, at times, indulge.
"To become a real adult and to take responsibility for who you are and your own happiness and your own dreams, I feel very much in my personal life, our personal life, that we have to understand where we are from to understand the mistakes we make, and also the role you play in many situations," says Lubbe Bakker.
The performances of the two Monas are striking, maybe that of Olivia Landuyt (young Mona) more so if only because she is so young, and the way she radiates kindness seems so natural. Her character is yet to learn that happiness may be little other than a phantom concept. Theatre actor Tanya Zabarylo plays the older Mona who has slowly come to this realisation, and for whom smiling is a rarity, simply because few reasons to do so present themselves.
Van Koevorden tells how he and Lubbe Bakker applied a therapy of ‘systemic family constellations' to prepare the actors for the emotionally-charged journey on which they were to embark.
"We asked the whole cast to [place] something from their personal life on the floor and to make a constellation with other actors playing someone from their past," he says. "It was all very personal, very intimate, very weird for the actors...but from the very start I think their relationships were formed, and their characters and their backgrounds."
"I think we created a common emotional frame because we all talked of our own families and the role we play in our own families, or where we are coming from," adds Lubbe Bakker. "So it was a safe place on the set, or this is what I hoped for and intended to create."
For more information about Becoming Mona:
International sales: Nine Film