Near the end of Bas Devos’s Ghost Tropic (2019), there’s a very intimate moment when its protagonist, Khadija (Saadia Bentaïb), takes off her headscarf just after arriving safely at the homely sphere of her flat. Having walked with her all night from the Southeast of Brussels to Molenbeek, all the way across town in the Northeast, the viewer is privileged to witness Khadija in this most private moment. Her gesture expresses a sense of peacefulness and familiarity that characterises the whole film.
Ghost Tropic takes place on a winter night. Khadija heads home after a day of cleaning at a large enterprise in Brussels; resting her head on the subway car’s window, she soon falls asleep. When she ends up at the subway’s terminus, discovering that it’s too late to catch a tram back, she starts walking through a city that is her home but at the same time is new to her: Brussels by night. Devos shows us a humble and personal version of Brussels, in which we become very close to the characters. The film’s 1:33 aspect ratio format contributes to the film’s intimacy, denying any pretences of grandiosity.
Dark blue and warm yellowish-orange recur throughout the film. Yellows are very much connected to cosiness and warmth, while the film’s dark blue is associated with the impersonality and animosity of the city. On top of her blue work outfit, Khadija wears a beige winter coat, which often turns a warm yellow shade when illuminated by the streetlamps. In contrast to the dark cobalt skyscraper city view, the ochre canteen where Khadija gets giggles along with her colleagues evokes a sense of cosiness. Images of warm lights shimmering on dark wet surfaces recall Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Colder neon and display lights are also part of the film’s colour palette; Grimm Vandekerckhove’s beautiful 16 mm photography turns the flashy red light of the H&M logo, the blue light of smartphones and the toxic green of night shop signs into an artistic Lichtspiel, relying on bokeh to create blue, green, orange and red circles of light. These colours also all reappear in the shape of a parrot, shown to Khadija by a friendly security guard.
Together with the mention of a subtropical swimming pool, this parrot embodies the “tropic” aspect in Ghost Tropic. More straightforwardly, at the end of the film, the “tropic” is shown in a scene on an idyllic beach where Khadija’s daughter is running into the sea, golden sunrays haloing her hair. Because of the image’s intense daylight, the scene at first does not seem to fit into the rest of the film. It brings the film full circle though, as it reminds of a travel agent’s advertisement for a palm-trees-covered holiday destination, at which Khadija gazes early on in the film. Ironically enough, the poster’s slogan reads “Get lost”; thereby foreshadowing Khadija’s journey through the city.
The first part of the two-word title, “ghost”, is mainly represented by the Hiroshima mon amour-like tracking shots through the nightly, empty streets of Brussels—as if a ghost is floating through the city. It’s in these streets that Khadija encounters a homeless man in need of medical attention, whom she calls an ambulance for and goes to visit in the hospital. She even tries to save his dog. All this contrasts heavily with the fact that she does not take care of her own daughter who’s getting drunk in the streets in the middle of the night, which feels like an overly forced attempt to make the protagonist a more complex character.
However, the film’s plot is of minor importance; atmosphere is what it’s all about, created by the beautiful cinematography and emphasised by a calm and delicate guitar score. Sporadically, a cheerful melody of chirping birds blends in, brightening up the film. Often, there are also moments of peaceful silence. Ghost Tropic’s gentle soundtrack makes one wish to stay in the theatre long after the film’s 85 minutes runtime, not wanting to leave the intimate, homely and congenial space full of light that Devos has created.