Sunday 8 October 2017

Cargo (Gilles Coulier, 2017)

Cargo is a solid and highly watchable drama focusing on the fortunes, or more accurately misfortunes, of a Flemish family of fishermen.  Early on in the film, the head of the family falls overboard during a violent storm and is placed on life support.  The eldest son, Jean, who is also a single father, takes on the day-to-day running of the business.  Times are tough, plus the ship is staring down the barrel of a highly expensive engine replacement which is proving impossible to secure funds for.

The taciturn Jean is at the centre of the action, but his two brothers also feature significantly: Francis is pleasant, dependable, yet struggling with his own private issues, while the feckless William - who Jean has no time for - suddenly pops up and wants a say in the future plans for the boat.  With the need for repairs ever more pressing, Jean has some difficult decisions to make, especially as there is a willing buyer lined up for the ship should he wish to sell.  The animosity between Jean and William means an agreement on how to proceed is not going to be easy to come by; matters are further complicated by Robert, a fellow boat owner who encourages Jean to sell up and join his crew - and in any case, Robert does not want to see Jean break the law by fishing with a ship that hasn't been approved as seaworthy.  Amidst all of this, Jean earns a little extra cash by occasionally working as a long distance lorry driver, which brings its own problems such as having to deal with stowaway migrants.

While the film features fine acting from all concerned, the landscape here emerges as a character in its own right; the port and the sea - the two main locations - are captured in a way that really conveys the hard, bleak lives of these people.  The title is something that doesn't really make sense up until very late on, and unfortunately this development threatens to tip the film into a melodrama unworthy of the careful, unsensational material that's preceded it.  The other notable misstep in the film is a nocturnal episode involving Francis, which plays very much like Gaspar Noé-lite and appears to have wandered in from another film.  These minor quibbles aside, Cargo stands as one of the best examples of Dutch-language cinema we've seen in recent years, and is very much recommended.  Quite how this failed to be put forward for the Oscars yet the starry-but-sloppy Racer and the Jailbird did is something of a mystery, as there is little doubt as to which of the two films is superior.  It screens at the London Film Festival on the 13th, 14th and 15th of October.

Darren Arnold