Director: Vincent Groos
Writer: Vincent Groos
Cast: Joke Emmers, Sien Eggers, François Beukelaers, Marilou Mermans
Lieve is a film focusing on a care worker of the same name, who lives in rural Belgium. It is a subtle, beautiful and sensitively composed short story, which follows her for less than a day as she visits some of her many clients.
Let me declare an interest. Both of my parents required visiting carers in their later years, as dementia and a paralysing stroke robbed them of their independence and former vigour. Over several years we saw a whole variety of folk come through the door, mostly doing their best, some more gifted than others. It’s an exceptionally tough job, generally carried out in far from ideal circumstances with never enough time given for appointments.
Striking the right balance between professional efficiency and compassionate human generosity is a nearly impossible task. If Lieve had been one of my parents’ carers, I suspect she’d have gone straight to the upper reaches of the inevitable favourites list.
Lieve is a Flemish term of endearment, like ‘Dear’, and she is aptly named. Played with accomplished naturalism by Joke Emmers, Lieve is no-nonsense but honest and likeable. She is, we suspect, keen to be efficient but always likely to come down on the side of compassion when pushed. It’s clear from the outset that she’s fighting a losing battle with the clock – she mentions that she has 22 patients to see that day. And of course, her timetable fails to account for the unexpected extra events that naturally characterise her work.
The unrealistic expectations of the job are personified in the character of Zoë. She’s also a carer (and apparently not a very conscientious one). But she also seems to be a manager, or perhaps the owner of the business. In the film’s least subtle scene, Zoë draws up in her expensive car alongside Lieve on her rather pathetic pedal scooter, and asks Lieve to cover extra jobs for her.
Where the film really stands out is in its depiction of the older people. Far from the stock characters they could have been, each is written and portrayed with real complexity. They don’t always make good choices and they can shift rapidly between friendly compliance and irascible defiance. The conflicting emotions as they grapple with their need both for independent dignity and basic assistance are powerfully affecting.
I recognised elements of my parents’ experience with disconcerting clarity. There’s a sense of the carer being simultaneously their best friend and worst enemy – a prolonger of their life and a reminder of their mortality. Again, it’s clear that the rigidity of the timetable is in direct competition with the messy reality of the clients.
Director Vincent Groos makes some good choices, using occasional landscape shots to create a sense of place and alleviate the claustrophobia of the interior scenes. Facial expressions are used effectively without slipping into indulgence or sentimentality. The dialogue, at least as mediated through the subtitles, seems nicely judged.
As a story, the piece works well at this length. It’s necessarily a snapshot. We see a bit of Lieve’s life and we see a bit of the lives of her clients. The film arrives, does what it needs to do and then heads on its way, rather like Lieve herself. But also like its protagonist, while it’s with us, it’s generous and thoughtful and adds value to our existence.