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A Poised, Impressive Belgian Debut

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A Poised, Impressive Belgian Debut

For teenage tennis prodigy Julie, discipline isn’t merely a virtue but a survival strategy. Repressing adolescent urges and emotional swings has long been part of her routine at the high-level youth tennis academy where she’s currently the star student: Years of concentrating all her time and attention on her game — all work and all play, as it were — look likely to reward her with the pro career she dreams of. Yet as whispers build of inappropriate behavior by her coach, Julie’s deliberate tunnel vision seems less a rigorous regimen than a fragile defense against interior collapse. A tense, taut, artfully hushed debut feature by Belgian writer-director Leonardo van Dijl, “Julie Keeps Quiet” also knows the value of control — though its own calm is fraught with anxiety and anger.

A standout of this year’s Critics’ Week programme at Cannes — where it won the SACD Award and scored sales including a U.K. distribution deal with Curzon/Artificial Eye — “Julie Keeps Quiet” should travel far on the strength of its coolly riveting execution and subject matter that remains broadly resonant amid an ongoing #MeToo reckoning. (Dedicated arthouse viewers may be reminded of the Cannes-selected 2020 title “Slalom,” about the untoward relationship between a teenage skier and her predatory coach, though van Dijl’s film is a brittler, more allusive work.) While its dramatic pull is more or less universal, however, the film follows in a distinctive tradition of muted Belgian realism: The observational influence of the Dardenne brothers, who take a co-producing credit here, is clear enough, but van Dijl also matches the sleeker, chillier styling of next-generation heirs like Laura Wandel (“Playground”) and Fien Troch (“Home”).

Van Dijl and expert DP Nicolas Karakatsanis — a Belgian who has already made the leap to Hollywood on projects like “I, Tonya” and “Cruella” — establish the film’s watchful, hands-off perspective in the opening shot, with a still camera set at the back of a practice court, remaining steady as Julie (Tessa Van den Broeck, a non-professional newcomer with vital youth tennis experience) darts in and out of the frame. The film will play repeatedly on this tension between static mise-en-scène and frenzied movement therein, a tidy but never overly contrived visual parallel to the maelstrom of inchoate emotion raging beneath the protagonist’s composed exterior. (The film’s roomy, echoing sound design and a spare, tingly score by Pulitzer-winning composer Caroline Shaw work to the same agenda.)

Practice is summarily cancelled; undeterred, Julie continues training solo, skittering across the court with pointed determination. Van Dijl and co-writer Ruth Becquart (who also plays Julie’s mother) parcel out information in brisk bullet points, inviting viewers to connect them as they will. Jérémy (Laurent Caron), Julie’s hard-driving but results-getting coach, is suspended, with no explanation given to his trainees for his sudden absence. Is it connected to the recent suicide of Aline, another of his young protégées? Even as academy principal (Claire Bodson) launches an investigation into possible misconduct, nobody is terribly forthcoming — least of all Julie herself, who may be processing her own toxic experience with Jérémy, but is loath to let such matters impede her athletic progress.

This setup may promise a chilly procedural drama, but “Julie Keeps Quiet” instead emerges as a character study, at once detached and markedly intimate, and laser-focused on its heroine as she blocks out the surrounding noise to find her own path through a difficult, potentially damaging situation. It’s a sombre affair, reflected in the overcast grays and slate blues of Karakatsanis’s restricted color palette, disrupted only by the blurred, citrusy yellow of flying tennis balls. (Sport, if not an uncompromised pleasure, is a constant, therapeutic escape.) But the arc traced here isn’t a hopeless one: Julie’s silence isn’t presented as ruinously consuming or calcifying, but as a coping mechanism that enables this already introverted adolescent to find some measure of social stability.

As such, she’s both passive and palpably, feverishly agitated — morally preoccupied with the kind of analytical self-scrutiny she prefers to bring to her game. That makes Julie a tough character for any actor to crack, let alone a non-pro, but Van den Broeck’s remarkable performance never wavers in either its physical poise or its clarity of expression beneath that self-imposed stoicism. Securely steered by van Dijl, who himself never strays into either overstatement or self-conscious austerity, she’s vulnerable enough to draw viewers into her turmoil, and reserved enough to keep the truth just out of reach, at least for the time being. Resisting the catharsis one typically wishes for in stories of abuse and trauma, this subtly imposing debut reminds viewers that victims can’t be pressured into sharing their stories without due time, consideration and quiet.

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