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Venice 2023 review: 'Holly' - An eerie and impressive Belgian gem in Competition

Holly
Holly Copyright Venice Film Festival
Copyright Venice Film Festival
By David Mouriquand
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The Girl With All The Gifts.

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Holly (a quietly magnetic Cathaline Geeraerts) is a 15-year-old teenager and something of an outcast.

Teachers are worried about her grades and her friendship circle limits itself to her sister (Maya Louisa Sterkendries) and friend Bart (Felix Heremans). They seem to be the only ones who can stand to be with whom many refer to on campus as “the witch”.

One day, she calls her school to say she’s staying at home. “Bad things are going to happen today,” she says. 

Wise call, which turns out to be a premonition, as we see smoke billowing in the background. A fire breaks out that day, killing several students.

Nine months later, and the community is still in living in the wake of the tragedy. They’re trying to collectively heal after the loss of their loved ones, and the school organises an excursion to honour the dead. A teacher, Anna (Greet Verstraete), asks Holly to join the team of volunteers, and seems to be intrigued by her premonition. Once on the trip, Holly seems to have a strange effect on the parents who are still grieving their sons and daughters: they feel warmth and are infused with certain peace of mind through contact with Holly.

Soon enough, word gets out that Holly can alleviate suffering, and people start seeking out the young woman’s gifts, a cathartic energy that makes her a reluctant celebrity. Even a messianic figure. They start to demand more of her, even offering money for her services...

Does Holly truly have a special gift or is this some form of collective hysteria, a shared delusion that casts one person as a symbol of hope amidst unimaginable loss?

After the terrific Home (2016), which won the Horizons Best Director award in Venice, Belgian writer-director Fien Troch returns with a film that confirms her as a thrilling voice in Belgian cinema. Her fifth feature doesn’t outright fit into the horror category, but definitely plays with some of the genre’s coda. Her premise is nothing new, as the acquisition of cursed privileges linked to the discomfort of adolescence is established as a well-trodden trope, one which serves as a reflection on puberty and sexual awakening, as well as a metaphor for non-conformity and the fear of the Other. From Brian DePalma’s Carrie to the Uncanny X-Men via Andrew Fleming’s The Craft, Julia Ducournau’s Grave (Raw) and Joachim Trier’s criminally underseen Jean Grey origin story Thelma, the fantasy-horror genre has always intertwined the knotty crawlspace between childhood and adulthood with the acquisition of abilities or urges.

Troch doesn’t hit too many obvious beats (there’s a merciful absence of an ethereal glow or visible reactions when Holly seems to operate her magic) and while the film threatens to go down the expected Carrie route in the second half, the filmmaker sticks to her guns. Holly’s abilities are celebrated but she still doesn’t fit in, and the film is truly engaging in the way it portrays collective trauma; how people search for a figure to condense their passions instead of accepting the inherent unpredictability of life.

Indeed, as a slow-burning portrait of shared grief and PTSD, in which the community projects and imposes their needs onto one person, Holly is fascinating. People are willing to believe in a substitute to dealing with grief, and everybody needs a scapegoat. Or, in some cases, a saviour.

After all, it can’t be an accident that if you drop one ‘l’ in ‘Holly’, you’re left with... You get where this is heading.

Troch sustains a suitably eerie mood throughout, with the camera angles and some canny slow zooms contributing to a pervading sense of uncanniness. Johnny Jewel’s synthy score is also on point, at times recalling Angelo Badalamenti.

There’s also a parallel to be drawn in the way Holly’s nascent fame mirrors modern online fame, in which celebrities are quickly built only to be torn down within days – with plenty of comments along the way. The character of Anna is interesting in this respect, as she represents a form of flawed humanity that invariably corrodes something pure, hypocritically judging the monetization of gifts when she herself abuses Holly for her own purposes. The link with online fame is further buttressed by the repeated use of reflective surfaces, which serve as signifiers for self-affirmation, as well as shifting identity and Holly’s evolving discomfort in accepting her role as a protector. 

It may be an obvious leitmotif, but it falls into the ‘symbolism with purpose’ category.

It’s a shame that the final stretch doesn’t quite have the required impact to elevate Holly to the ranks of some of the aforementioned kids-with-abilities movies. Troch could have leaned a bit further into the darkness, and explored a more sinister switch in Holly’s powers. Still, while the ending may initially appear underwhelming, it’s in keeping with the previously set tone, and bolsters the central theme of acceptance to reveal Holly as a love story – in the purest form of the term.

Holly premiered in Competition at the Venice Film Festival.

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