Directed by: Olivier Masset-Depasse | 97 minutes | drama, thriller | Actors: Veerle Baetens, Anne Coesens, Mehdi Nebbou, Arieh Worthalter, Jules Lefebvres, Luan Adam, Annick Blancheteau, André Pasquasy, Laurent Van Wetter
‘Duelles’ is an oppressive Belgian thriller about two neighbors and friends who lead a pleasant life in the suburbs of Brussels in the 1960s. The dramatic death of the son of one of them puts pressure on their friendship and turns suspicion and guilt into revenge and hatred. Director Olivier Masset-Depasse based his film on a script he himself adapted with Giordano Gederlini, based on Barbara Abel’s 2012 novel ‘Derrière la haine’.
Blonde Alice (Veerle Baetens) seems to be planning something sinister in the opening scene, but it soon turns out to be a surprise party for neighbor Céline (Anne Coesens). The tone is thus immediately set in a film that builds up great tension, with a dash of wry humor and which regularly – and not coincidentally – reminds of Hitchcock. No posthumous cameo from the great master, unfortunately, but his influence is certainly palpable.
Alice and her husband Simon (Mehdi Nebbou) have a son, Theo (Jules Lefebvres), who enjoys playing with Maxime (Luan Adam), the son of Céline and her husband Damian (Arieh Worthalter). They crawl through a hole in the hedge, which will later play a crucial role. When Maxime unhappily falls out of his bedroom window and dies, the first sour note arises in the friendship between Alice and Céline. The grieving mother blames Alice for not getting there fast enough to save Maxime, and Alice feels guilty about it. Strange things soon happen and Céline is very interested in Theo’s well-being, so Alice has the feeling that Céline is ready to hurt Theo. Alice’s husband Simon watches his wife’s mental decline with growing irritation. He thinks she is paranoid and has long been a sober benchmark for the viewer on events that are open to two interpretations.
A psychological game of cat and mouse then develops between Alice and Céline, in which the makers leave the viewer in the dark for a while whether it is all Alice’s imagination, or whether Céline actually has bad ulterior motives. This can absolutely be attributed to the two actresses who play the lead roles. Both Baetens and Coesens are very evenly matched and the changing friendship is very strongly portrayed by them in small glances and, later, large gestures. Also very noteworthy are Arieh Worthalter as Maxime’s father, whose powerlessness drips from his eyes and his sadly hanging mustache, and the young Jules Lefebvres as Theo.
The music also plays a major supporting role in the images. Is it all as menacing as the music sometimes seems to suggest? Here too, a game is played with the viewer’s train of thought. It does slow down a bit halfway through as patterns start to repeat themselves. When it slowly becomes clear how the fork really is in the stem, an unexpected denouement follows. This slot not only gives the viewer food for thought, but also a somewhat unsatisfactory feeling. Is it now to break the expectations that you as a viewer have with such thrillers? Have the makers failed in their zeal to make the ending believable? It’s hard to put your finger on exactly that. When the tension is broken, the film has a cold, distant appearance.
In addition to the high-quality acting and the long exciting story, what is particularly striking is how beautifully the film is decorated and how beautifully it gives a picture of the time of the 60s. It all looks magnificent: the haircuts, the clothes, the cars and the furnishings of the two houses where the film largely takes place.
The ending of ‘Duelles’ will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, but the overall movie experience is certainly positive.